Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Say You're Sorry: Children Distinguish between Willingly Given and Coerced Expressions of Remorse

Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Say You're Sorry: Children Distinguish between Willingly Given and Coerced Expressions of Remorse

Article excerpt

Children as young as four years of age are aware that apologies can convey a transgressor's remorse and alleviate a victim's upset feelings (Smith. Chen, & Harris 2010; Vaish, Carpenter, & Tomasello, 2011). Young children also judge that the offering of an apology can signal the likeability of a transgressor and that apologies mitigate punishment deservingness (Banerjee, Bennett, & Luke 2010). Recent experimental work also shows that 4- to 7-year-olds, when saddened by another person, feel better after getting an apology and judge apologizers as nicer than nonapologizers (Smith & Harris, 2012); though see Drell and Jaswal (2016) for an example of how this may depend on the severity of the social breach. These findings align with theories on the utility of expressing self-conscious emotions. Expressions of guilt stir up compassion in others, making healing and forgiveness more likely (e.g., Lazare, 2006; McCullough, Worthington, & Rachal, 1997; McCullough et al., 1998).

Although a grasp of the basic functions of apologies is present in the preschool years, less is known about whether and when children distinguish between sincere and insincere apologies. Some people undoubtedly deliver apologies in a scripted fashion without feeling remorse-for example, using an apology as a "face" management strategy (e.g., Goffman, 1955). Further, given that apologetic displays can arouse sympathy, it comes as no surprise that some people use nongenuine expressions of remorse to advance their own interests (e.g., defendants who falsify remorse to soften the views of judges and juries; ten Brinke, MacDonald, Porter, & O'Connor, 2012). Accordingly, sensitivity to reliable markers of insincere apologies could enable an apology recipient or observer to avoid being deceived by someone who expresses remorse but does not feel it.

The goal of the present research was to explore whether children are sensitive to the fact that some apologies do not convey true remorse. We started the exploration of this topic by using simple scenarios with high degrees of ecological validity. We focused on two nonambiguous, apology-related variables that children are exposed to early in life: the extent to which an apology is offered spontaneously1 and the extent to which an apology is offered willingly. In Study 1, we asked whether children discriminate between apologies that are offered spontaneously and willingly and apologies offered willingly following adult prompting (prompted/ willing). In Study 2, we asked whether children discriminate between two types of adult-prompted apologies: one given willingly (prompted/ willing) and the other given begrudgingly, after resistance (prompted/ coerced).

Additional Background

Sincere apologies are characterized by the expression of genuine remorse (Lazare, 2004, 2006). Some apologies, however, do not involve guilt or regret. One indicator of remorselessness may be the presence of an apology prompt from a third party to a transgressor. Indeed, adults rate people who apologize spontaneously as more likeable than those who do so after prompting (Risen & Gilovich, 2007).

Young children encounter apologies offered by others (Ely & Gleason, 2006) and are prompted to engage in politeness routines by parents (e.g., Gleason, Perlmann, & Greif, 1984), including apologizing (Graham & Sell, 2001). A recent study with U.S.-based parents of 3- to 10-year-olds found that many parents anticipated prompting apologies from their children following both intentional and accidental transgressions, in the event that their children did not apologize spontaneously (Smith, Noh, Rizzo, & Harris, 2017). Although authoritative and authoritarian parents indicated being more likely than permissive parents to prompt apologies, parents in each of the three parenting-style groups reported that they would almost always prompt apologies from their children following transgressions against their children's peers (e. …

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