Ed note - We're digging in the archives today: This post originally appeared on Anthropology in Practice on June 27th, 2011.

"It's hard for me to say I'm sorry."

Readers may find that the title for this section triggers a certain refrain by Chicago (or BoysIIMen, depending on how old you are). Apologies in advance to those of you who may find yourself humming the chorus on your drive home or while walking through the halls of your workplace or campus. Or while grocery shopping. Or brushing your teeth. (The power of suggestion is a curious thing.) Of course, you may question how sorry I really am considering that I made a conscious decision to use this particular title for the post. And depending on how annoyed you become at the persistence of this suggestion, or how annoying you find Chicago, you may not easily forgive this seemingly small transgression.

But I imagine you come here, Reader, because we are friends in a strange, disembodied way. And I would hope you would be able to overlook any resulting disturbance to our relationship—eventually. Reconciliation—“the settlement of conflicts or inconsistencies and the restoration of peaceful or amicable relations”—as a means of managing social predicaments in a widespread practice (1). Reconciliation has been crafted into finely tuned rituals that help shape and maintain relationships. It has been institutionalized and sanctioned as a form of mediation. But saying “I’m sorry” seems to be an easier process for some, requiring the use of other non-verbal signs dependent on the right circumstances for others. Are all apologies the same? How do we judge the authenticity of reconciliatory actions? And why do we even need to bother?

You’ve Got a Friend in Me

Reconciliation has been documented in many of our nonhuman primate cousins, where it primarily takes the form of soft grunting and grooming. For example, a female baboon who has attacked a lower ranking female may approach her victim and grunt softly to show that the aggressive episode has ended (2). While it is difficult to trace the development of reconciliatory actions through the evolution of the primate taxa, research suggests that reconciliatory actions may have evolved from signals used to communicate intent across a range of social situations (3).

It seems to be a necessary element of group life—which, though riddled with benefits (e.g., increased access to resources, protection from predators), is prone to conflict as members compete for resources and contend with personality differences. Those conflicts, in turn, generate stress and tension. Think about your own responses to stress following interpersonal conflict: you may have experienced a burst of adrenaline, found yourself shaking your knee or tapping a finger impatiently on the table, or felt your cheeks flush as your temperature rose. Among female Rhesus macaques, heart rates increase and remain elevated following conflicts, and self-directed behaviors, such as scratching, yawning, and shaking, also increase (4). Stress prepares us to deal with the potential fallout regarding conflict. It’s an adaptive response to crisis situations.

However, social groups rely heavily on cooperative efforts. To reap the benefits of group life, relationships must remain intact—group life would become very difficult if stress persisted unchecked. There are several outcomes that may follow a conflict: the matter may simply be resolved, or it may be that the aggressor persists, or the victim may regroup and launch an aggressive attack in response. Conflict can therefore create anxiety for both the aggressor and the victim. Reconciliatory actions remove ambiguity about what may happen next, telling both parties that it’s okay to resume contact with each other. Reconciliation indicates that the conflict is over.

Thus conflict rarely remains a divisive intragroup factor. In fact, instead of driving group members apart, conflict tends to bring members together as they seek to repair relationships:

The evolutionary advantages of reconciliation are obvious for animals that survive through mutual aid: Reconciliation ensures the continuation of cooperation among parties with partially conflicting interests. At the same time, it should be realized that reconciliation was never predicted of even remotely considered by evolutionary theorists … In many social animals, however, both parties stand to lose if escalated fighting damages relationships” (5).

There are two prevalent explanations as to how reconciliation functions to repair disruptions to the social order: relationship-repair and benign-intent. The latter suggests that reconciliation facilitates short-term objectives. Let’s say you’ve argued with a colleague, and then find that you need to obtain meeting notes from this person to complete a deliverable. Reconciliation would allow you access to the resources you need for your agenda. In this model, the relationship is secondary—something to be manipulated to serve an end.

Relationship-repair proposes that reconciliation preserves important social bonds, which ultimately enhances reproductive fitness (everything comes down to sex, it seems). This is the more popular of the two ideas because it lends itself to the cooperative view of social life and the preservation of group cohesion:

Animals who are regularly supported in agonistic confrontations, protected from harassment, or allowed to share access to desirable resources are expected to gain short-term benefits that are ultimately translated into fitness gains. Thus, relationships with allies, protectors, and tolerant group members would be particularly valuable (6).

And there is evidence to support that this is indeed the case (7):

    • Monkeys tend to reconcile with kin more frequently than with non-kin, even after the higher rate of interaction between these connections are accounted for.

    • Male chimpanzees will reconcile with members of the band with whom they have formed alliances, particularly when they have worked with those alliances to defend the troop against neighbors.

    • Female gorillas will reconcile with selective partners whom they depend on for protection against unknown males.

  • Though researchers caution against linking coalitionary behaviors with reconciliatory actions, it does seem that stronger affiliations encourages relationship mediation. Secure bonds can withstand greater thresholds for conflict without damaging the relationship (8). Perhaps there is truth after all in the saying that familiarity breeds contempt. And that’s okay: close personal relationships allow for more frequent airing of grievances and admissions of annoyance, which can be dealt with.

    Chimps Do It. Dolphins Do it. So How Do Human Do It?

    We can only make guesses regarding nonhuman primate psychology. So it comes as no surprise that relationship-repair and benign-intent are often treated as silos. Reconciliation is a nuanced affair among humans intended to repair and reconstruct identities in the wake of social transgressions. As such, the models of relationship-repair and benign-intent appear to complement the complexities of human mediation in social orders. Among humans, reconciliation often centers on the apology, which involves an admission of guilt and a plea that the act that triggered the conflict or otherwise disrupted the relationship not be permanently linked to the individual. The ritual of reconciliation is built around performances of the apology, which may include statements of regret, remorse, or contrition (e.g., “I’m sorry” or “Please forgive me”), restitution or gift-giving (i.e., a peace offering), food sharing, and physical contact (e.g., kissing, hugging, shaking hands). These elements may be deployed singularly or in some combination, depending on the nature and extent of the conflict. “It’s Hard for Me to Say I’m Sorry” actually combines many elements of the apology. In the song, a couple is on the verge of separating, and the singer is making a last-ditch effort to get his lover to stay:

    Hold me now

    It’s hard for me to say I’m sorry

    I just want you to know

    Hold me now

    I really want to tell you I’m sorry

    I could never let you know

    After all that we've been through

    I will make it up to you

    I promise to

    And after all that's been said and done

    You're just a part of me I can't let go

    And after all that we've been through

    I will make it up to you

    I promise to

    The singer makes a plea for physical contact (“Hold me now”), acknowledges the importance of the relationship (“You’re just a part of me I can’t let go”), and tries to assure that the issue will not occur again (“I will make it up to you”). These efforts are repeated as the singer tries to impress on the injured party that the situation can be resolved. The higher the consequences on a relationship, the greater the perceived responsibility of the transgressor, and the more nuanced the apology (9).

    Apologies are heavily socially coded, and to be effective they require the appropriate response. For example, bumping into someone accidentally might be resolved by “I’m sorry”—the statement acknowledges that you invaded someone else’s space, and allows you both to move to your own corners. If you bump into someone because you were careless and caused him harm, you may offer to help him up, apologize, and take him to the hospital, if necessary. The nature of the response is a good cue as to the authenticity of the apology. If you really care about preserving the relationship, you’ll do your best to reconcile. However, excessive attempts to reconcile or absentminded use of apologies (e.g., the person who says “I’m sorry” all the time) may dilute the effectiveness of the apologetic ritual.

    ”I’d rather kiss a toilet seat.”

    So far we’ve discussed the ways reconciliation helps nonhuman primates preserve social bonds, and it seems to work that way among humans as well. But reconciliation is not the only means by which primates resolve conflict (10). Some, like long-tailed macaques, redirect aggression and the display of aggression seems to reduce the likelihood that they will continue to be targeted for conflict. And red-bellied tamarins, ring-tailed lemurs, and white-faced capuchins do not reconcile after conflicts but continue to live in social groups.

    Despite the apparent social significance of reconciliation, some people seem to have a hard time initiating reconciliation. In many ways, reconciliation seems to operate like “gifts,” which sociologist Marcel Mauss viewed as generating ripples of obligations that could reduce social status (11). Admission of guilt acknowledges a character flaw, which may be perceived as a sign of weakness. It places a certain amount of power in the hands of someone else (i.e., you have to wait for the other person to accept your apology before the matter can be relationship can resume without too many lasting ill effects). The dynamics of relationships are complex and shift constantly as people both offer and receive assistance in a variety of ways.

    The fluidity of our networks may also impede reconciliatory efforts. We are not necessarily bound to a single social group or any single individual. While we have the ability to selectively manage relationships that we believe are important to us, it is possible that a conflict may arise that generates such a great disturbance that we decide the relationship is far too detrimental. An apology in this case may allow both parties to separate because we can form alternative partnerships.

    Sometimes, saying I’m sorry is all you can do. And sometimes, you have to weigh the costs of the relationship against the benefits. Large, fluid networks allow us to find alternate sources of support so that group life can continue in some form. We have never been more poised to leave relationships that are hurtful—the emotional toll of constantly being in a position of issuing apologies to maintain a relationship can be heavy. And yet there is a great deal of social pressure to maintain certain relationships. For example, familial connections are weighted more heavily than friendships. The sense of obligation we may feel to preserve certain relationships can thus be both internal and external. These factors can be extremely limiting despite the availability of other sources of support.

    Reconciliation becomes a political affair. It’s a social tool, but it can also be a manipulative one as well. How do we tell the difference?

    P.S. - Here's the video for good measure.



    1. Silk (2002): 24; Schlenker and Darby (1981): 271. | 2. Silk (2002): 22. | 3. Silk (2002): 39. | 4. Silk (2002): 27. | 5. de Waal (2000): 589. | 6. Silk (2002): 31. | 7. Silk (2002): 31, 32. | 8. de Waal (2000): 588. | 9. Schlenker and Darby (1981): 275. | 10. Silk (2002): 24. | 11. See here and here.


    de Waal, FB (2000). Primates--A Natural Heritage of Conflict Resolution. Science (New York, N.Y.), 289 (5479), 586-90 PMID: 10915614

    Schlenker, B. and Darby, B. (1981). The Use of Apologies in Social Predicaments. Social Psychology Quarterly., 44 (3), 271-278

    Silk, J. (2002). The Form and Function of Reconciliation in Primates. Annual Review of Anthropology, 31 (1), 21-44 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.31.032902.101743