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Truly Sorry? Apologies Differ by Gender

By Rich_Maloof Jul 26, 2012 4:40PM

Photo: Kevin Winter/NBCUniversal/GettyWhat was it about Kristen Stewart’s apology yesterday that felt so genuine? Apologies from public figures usually come across like they’ve been written by a publicist and read off a teleprompter. But within 24 hours of a tabloid exposing the tryst she had with married director Rupert Sanders, while in a longterm relationship herself with actor Robert Pattinson, Stewart spilled her heart in a mea culpa:

I'm deeply sorry for the hurt and embarrassment I've caused to those close to me and everyone this has affected. This momentary indiscretion has jeopardized the most important thing in my life, the person I love and respect the most, Rob. I love him, I love him, I'm so sorry.

It’s possible though cynical to think that Stewart, the highest paid actress in Hollywood, can afford the sharpest and fastest damage-control specialists on the market. But her statement doesn’t feel crafted. It shows humility and respect, which are important elements in an effective apology and qualities that the 22-year-old actress doesn’t appear to give up easily. Psychologists also identify four basic motives for apologizing — to salvage a relationship, to diminish another’s pain, to escape punishment, and to relieve guilt — and in her statement Stewart captures the first two, more altruistic motives.

We’re not so accustomed to hearing female public figures asking for forgiveness, and it may be that men and women have different means and motivations for their apologies. Without defaulting to the conventional wisdom that men have to protect fragile egos, there’s an aspect to apologizing that implies defeat, which the more competitive male gender is less inclined to concede. Tiger Woods, Anthony Wiener, and Bill Clinton all had personas shaped by winning and success, and their late-coming, highly crafted apologies lacked authenticity. They seemed more driven by those self-preserving, secondary motives of escaping punishment and guilt. It felt like none of them would have apologized had he never been caught, implying the regret originated in being exposed rather than in feeling bad.

One of few scientific studies on the psychology of female versus male apologies determined that men are less inclined to apologize because they have a different threshold for perceiving offensive behavior; that is, that they don’t always get what they’ve done wrong until someone slaps them upside the head for it. If true, the flipside benefit is that a man is also less likely to demand an apology from a woman, because he has the same high threshold for perceiving a misstep by her as apology-worthy.

Disparities between female and male brains may also impact how apologies are shaped and delivered. Men tend to have proportionally more white matter in their heads, indicating a thick web of connections that strengthen organizational skills, spatial relations, and problem solving. But women are understood to have greater connectivity between the left side of the brain, where logic and facts are mostly processed, and the right side in charge of non-linear thought like creativity and perception. The flow of signals between left and right may explain why women are generally better at connecting emotions with language.

That’s the strength in Stewart’s apology: a direct link between what she did and her begging expression of regret. It says nothing of the trustworthiness of one gender over another, but women seem to deliver a more convincing “I’m sorry” once the deed is done.

Photo: Kevin Winter/NBCUniversal/Getty

Jul 30, 2012 2:46AM
Well, I'm not a vampire-show watching tween, so I couldnt care less
Jul 29, 2012 10:54PM
So what does the guy she was sleeping with have to say?
Jul 29, 2012 8:01AM

What erroneous drivel. Give me a break. Nothing but a gender-biased, subjective, diatribe.

It's nothing special, and rather a weak, plain-wrap Webster's apology.

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