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12 Oct 2023

Why NOT saying you're sorry is good for your health

Mental Health

The expectation is that one with breeding and manners should always make amends for the human ‘error’ of erring. Decorum says that after doing anything from the stupid and silly to the evil and insane must instantly be followed by a ‘coming clean’ atonement. Yet this is never pleasant. 

So why do we do it? Research has taken the view, to support the common wisdom, that there are immense psychological benefits to saying you’re sorry. 

​No one has asked the reverse question being: “if so many people don’t like doing it there must be mental health benefits in not apologising.” 

Not necessarily so say Australian researchers Tyler G. Okimoto, Michael Wenzel and Kyli Hedrick reported on what they've found happens in people's minds when they refuse to apologize.

They discovered that the adage ‘saying sorry will make you feel better’ may now not be best practice. 

"We do find that apologies do make apologizers feel better, but the interesting thing is that refusals to apologize also make people feel better and, in fact, in some cases it makes them feel better than an apology would have," Okimoto admits with no sense of sorry.


Feeling empowered

Ironically when you refuse to apologize, it actually makes you feel more empowered. That power and control seems to translate into greater feelings of self-worth.

The group surveyed 228 people and asked them to remember a time they had done something wrong. Most people remembered relatively trivial offenses, but some remembered serious transgressions, including crimes such as theft.

The researchers then asked the people whether they had apologised, or made a decision not to apologize even though they knew they were in the wrong. And they also divided the people at random and asked some to compose an email where they apologised for their actions, or compose an email refusing to apologise.

In both cases, Okimoto said, refusing to apologise provided psychological benefits — which explains why people are so often reluctant to apologize.

The same thing happened when people were asked to imagine doing something wrong, and then imagine apologising or refusing to apologise.

So the next time someone accuses you of spending too much time on the Swiss ball, hogging the paint boxes, doing diddly-squat in the garden, or playing music that doesn’t suit their tastes, tell them, for health reasons, you’re not able to apologise.

Then either give them the death stare...or a big hug. But ALWAYS bear in mind that manners do maketh the person. Being purposefully rude or obnoxious doesn’t cut it. 

On the other hand, Harvard University Medical School maintains that apologies are powerful, and effective, if they are motivated by the following: 

  1. A specific definition of the perceived offense. The person offended and the perceived offender need a clear shared understanding of the behaviours (or omissions) that felt hurtful, rude, or wrong.
  2. Acknowledging that the perceived offense caused harm. The person offended needs recognition that their pain or embarrassment was legitimate, even if others might have felt differently.
  3. Taking responsibility. Offenders should acknowledge that, whether or not the offense was intentional, they were accountable for causing harm.
  4. Recognition of wrongdoing. Offenders need to agree that they were insensitive and made a mistake.
  5. A statement of regret. While “I’m sorry” is generally not enough for a complete apology, it is a necessary part of any apology and is imperative for re-building trust.
  6. A promise not to repeat the offense. The offender needs to offer a clear plan for self-restraint, improved behaviour, and how to work with the offended person to address possible future misunderstandings.
  7. An explanation of why the offender acted this way. Be careful! An explanation can be risky as it can sound defensive or seem to be an excuse for bad behaviour.  Sometimes it is useful for healing a broken relationship and may set the groundwork for re-establishing trust and respect.  An explanation is only effective if combined with all the above elements.

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Date Published: December 2017

Reviewed: September 2022

To be reviewed: September 2025