Do we believe apologies by people who have committed a transgression? It depends on their power status.
A new international study including the University of Haifa found that people with high social status are perceived as insincere when they apologize for a transgression, relative to people of lower status.
“The high-status person is perceived as someone who can control their emotions more effectively and use them strategically, and accordingly they are perceived as less sincere. This perception applies to the world of business and work, and it’s reasonable to assume it applies to politicians, too. The more senior they are, the less authentic their emotions are perceived as being,” says Dr. Arik Cheshin of the University of Haifa, one of the authors of the study.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, was undertaken by Dr. Arik Cheshin from the Department of Human Services at the University of Haifa, together with an international team of researchers from the United States and the Netherlands, headed by Prof. Peter Kim of the University of Southern California. In a series of experiments, each involving hundreds of participants, the researchers sought to examine whether the power status of a person who has committed a transgression influences trust in that person and the ability to forgive them.
In the first part of the experiment, the researchers told the participants about an employee who had been found forging documents, leading to the imposition of a fine on the company. They showed the participants pictures of the employee expressing various emotions in a later staff meeting – happiness, sadness, anger, and fear.
The next experiment used video clips showing the same emotions but a different transgression that lead to legal problems. Some of the participants were told that the person involved was a junior employee, while others were told that it was the company’s CEO.
In the following experiments, the researchers examined the same situation, but this time relating to a real incident. They showed the participants a real video clip in which the CEO of Toyota cried and apologized for failing to take action, even though he knew there was a problem with the breaks in various vehicles. Again, some of the participants thought that the person was a junior employee, while others were told that he was the CEO.
The findings showed that in all three cases, the CEO’s emotions were perceived as less sincere than those of the junior employee. When the researchers explored the reason for this difference, it emerged that the participants perceived the CEO as someone who can control their emotions and even use them strategically. “The assumption is that the CEO has much more to lose, and accordingly has a stronger motivation to try to use their emotions to create empathy. Accordingly, the participants described them as less sincere.”
Next, the researchers examined a similar situation, but this time they not only asked who was perceived as more authentic, but also whether there was a difference in terms of the participants’ willingness to forgive a junior or a senior employee in exactly the same situation. They presented the participants with a true case of a CEO who insulted the company’s customers and then posted a video apology on YouTube. Again, some of the participants were told that he was a senior employee and others thought that he was a junior worker.
Once again, it was found that the CEO was perceived as less sincere and less deserving of forgiveness. The researchers also found that in the case of the junior employee, the participants gave much more detailed explanations as to why the worker should be forgiven.
“Positions of power come with a disadvantage. The expression of emotions after a transgression are perceived as less authentic and less sincere when they are made by a high-status person. Accordingly, people are less inclined to forgive high-status people than those with lower status,” Dr. Cheshin said.
“We examined this issue in the context of the business world, but we can certainly apply the conclusions to other spheres, such as politics. The more senior the politician, the more we are inclined to assume that they are better at controlling their emotions and are using emotions strategically. Because we believe that they are trying to achieve something, we perceive them as less sincere in the same situation,” he concluded.