Credit: Jesse Bering

It is a little-known fact that a life lived without enemies would be an extraordinarily dull affair. One person who understood this very clearly was the nineteenth century British essayist William Hazlitt, whose misanthropic-sounding On the Pleasure of Hating was in fact a gracefully written ode to this much maligned social emotion: “Without something to hate,” wrote Hazlitt, “we should lose the very spring of thought and action. Life would turn to a stagnant pool, were it not ruffled by the jarring interests, the unruly passions of men.” Suddenly the idea of a utopian society, where everyone is satisfied, equal and good, sounds like a rather drab and stultifying place. Heaven, according to this view, would be a special kind of Hell, a land filled with the souls of smiling, slumbering idiots intoxicated by unending love, understanding and pleasant company. (And an especially interminable ocean of boredom, since one couldn’t even escape through death.)

Or consider, where would Bill O’Reilly be without the “Liberal Left” that so angers him, Richard Dawkins without the “dyed-in-the-wool” believers who’ve become the bane of his existence, or prosecutorial talk show host Nancy Grace without the “scum” she abhors so passionately? (Writer Jean Genet, who spent the first half of his life as a cog in the French penal system, pointed out that criminals were just as important to society as were those who despised them. After all, said Genet, an entire industry of people—lawyers, judges, jailers, clerks, guards, legislators, psychiatrists, counselors and so on—were only able to pay their taxes, feed their children and furnish their homes through the tireless labors of criminals.) Without someone to hate, these pundits would be considerably poorer, no doubt, without a soapbox to stand on and void of any unique social function. With all this in mind, I suppose it was a very wise PR person who once told me that if ever I found myself universally liked, this would be a sign that I was doing something very wrong.

Yet the problem is that, although I can certainly appreciate the rationale behind this strategic advice and I’m all too happy to submit to our species’ natural taste for self-righteous animosity, I’ve unfortunately (and, I must say, embarrassingly) inherited a rather “sensitive” disposition. For most people, it’s relatively easy to hate—even, as Hazlitt reasoned, to find a hidden pleasure in such emotions. But, unless you’re a genuine sociopath, it’s a real feat to derive such pleasure from actually being the subject of others’ wrath. And that, of course, is the ugly flip side of Hazlitt’s glimmering coin of hatred.

According to Duke University psychologist Mark Leary, the feeling of being disliked, ostracized or rejected was specially designed by evolution to be particularly painful; subjectively speaking, being evaluated negatively by others can feel even worse than physical trauma. The reason that others’ negative evaluations affect us so deeply, Leary believes, has to do with our primate past.

Unlike virtually every other species, the hominids could not rely on speed, flight, strength, arboreal clambering, burrowing or ferocity to evade predators. Many theorists in psychology, anthropology and biology have noted that human beings and their hominid ancestors survived and prospered as species only because they lived in cooperative groups. Given the importance of group living, natural selection favored individuals who not only sought the company of others but also behaved in ways that led others to accept, support and help them.

In other words, for a human being, only death itself ensures a speedier genetic demise than stigma and exclusion. To ensure that our ancestors were ever wary of their tenuous dependence on others, Leary proposes that they evolved a sort of subjective, psychological gauge that served to continually monitor their fluctuating “relational value,” an affective index of where the self stood in the eyes of other ingroup members. Generally speaking, the higher one’s relational value, the greater one’s reproductive opportunities and genetic fitness. Just as it continues to do today, this hypothetical “sociometer” generated emotional states that, collectively, were translated into what’s popularly known as our “self-esteem.” Assuming our sociometer isn’t broken or impaired, negative self-esteem is a kind of warning, then, that one is at serious risk of social (and therefore genetic) exclusion.

One of the most significant contributions of the sociometer hypothesis is that, over a decade of conducting carefully designed experiments meant to test its central tenets, Leary and his colleagues have almost completely debunked the popular “doesn’t-matter-what-anyone-else-says” idea that self-esteem comes from the self. That is to say, if you’re prone to boasting that you don’t care what other people think about you, then you probably just haven’t given enough thought to the source of your self-esteem—that, or you genuinely have a diagnosable personality disorder. There are, of course, individual differences in this domain. For example, “high self-monitors” are people who are unusually preoccupied with the impressions they’re making on others. Such people—I tend to be one of these in real life—are overly agreeable chameleons who easily adopt the attitudes and beliefs of the prevailing social environment (at least on the surface). But wherever we fall along the self-monitoring scale, each of us presumably has an innate sociometer providing continual emotional feedback and encouraging us to boost our relational value.

The trouble, of course, is that each of us is also vulnerable to flubbing up the occasional social norm. If we were perfectly angelic specimens, we wouldn’t need the sociometer to begin with; rather, the sociometer is as much a preemptive device for disarming our selfish desires and preventing dips in our relational value as it is a corrective one that prompts us to repair the reputation-related damage we’ve already done. One quick-and-dirty damage control tactic is apologizing to those we’ve wronged. And you might be surprised to learn just how effective a simple apology can be. In fact, a recent series of studies showed that, to a large extent, it doesn’t even matter if the apology is patently insincere—at least for the target of the original wrongdoing. In this 2007 article by Cornell University psychologists Jane Risen and Thomas Gilovich and published in Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes, unsuspecting students were confronted with a surprisingly obnoxious person (ostensibly another student, but actually someone who was in on the experiment and acting out a script to test the researchers’ hypotheses) during testing.

For example, in one experiment, undergraduate students were told they were participating in an online group discussion with three other students, plus an experimenter posing to them a series of questions ranging from politics to adjustment to college. Risen and Gilovich write that, “the experimenter told participants that productive discussions are open, honest and insightful and that while discussing mildly sensitive topics, they should try to make comments that facilitate a productive discussion.” At least, that’s what the students thought was happening while sitting alone in their lab cubicles. In reality, there were only two other people online—the experimenter, who also assumed the roles of two sham participants (the “harmdoer” and the “coercer” in the coerced apology condition), and one other real participant who served as the “onlooker” to the social offense event. This main event was scheduled to occur when the fourth question was posed to the target participant.

This fourth question was written to encourage participants to simply respond “no.” The experimenter asked the target student, “Do you think that the United States is doing everything it possibly can to provide equal rights for its gay citizens? Yes or no?” (Seven of forty-nine participants said “yes” and were excluded from the final analysis.) After the target student said “no,” the experimenter delivered the social offense in the role of the “harmdoer” by saying, “you should just go move to Australia or Canada or something--this discussion thing would be more productive if you quit being such an ungrateful baby.... realized that you’re lucky to live here, and stopped focusing only on the negative.”

Although all participants were exposed to this social offense, either as the target or the observer, they were randomly assigned to one of three conditions. In the spontaneous condition, the “harmdoer” immediately wrote an apology: “You know what—that was too harsh. I’m sorry.” In the coerced condition, the experimenter wrote as the “coercer”: “I can’t believe you said that. That was totally uncalled for. You need to apologize.” The “harmdoer” then wrote an apology identical to the one in the spontaneous condition. Finally, for those in the no apology condition, the discussion continued without the “harmdoer” apologizing. For all conditions, three additional questions were posed without incident before the discussion came to an end and participants were asked to evaluate the other players on a number of dimensions.

The results from these ratings revealed that although the targets “forgave” both the spontaneous apologist and the coerced apologist in equal measure, the observers did so only for the spontaneous apologist. In other words, the targets found both apologists equally likable, selfish, kind, arrogant, rude and compassionate, whereas the observers expressed a clear disdain for the one who apologized only after being coerced into it. Furthermore, while observers said they wanted nothing else to do with the coerced apologist, targets said they wouldn’t mind working with this person again. Observers also recommended that the coerced apologist receive less payment for their participation on the task than they did for the spontaneous apologists, whereas the targets felt that the two types of apologists deserved equal amounts. Why this difference between the targets and observers in their forgiveness of the coerced harmdoer? Risen and Gilovich argue that whereas offended parties are motivated to appear forgiving rather than spiteful, observers (as neutral parties) are expected to be fair and discerning of others’ intentions. As for the non-apologist, as you might expect, this person was disliked most of all—both the targets and observers expressed more anger towards this player than they did for either type of apologist.

However, there’s an important caveat to this finding that even insincere apologies are better than no apology when it comes to recovering precious dividends from one’s sinking relational value. In another experiment, Risen and Gilovich found that when the responsibility for harmdoing is ambiguous, offering a coerced apology can backfire, with observers evaluating the apologist less favorably than someone who offers no apology at all. In this other experiment, participants were told that they’d be competing in a game of “communication skills” against other players. Each undergraduate participant sat back-to-back with another player (actually a confederate of the experimenters) as this other person put a set of K’nex toy pieces together and gave directions to the target about how to put an identical set of pieces together in the same way. The target was instructed to follow these directions without asking questions or making any comments. For each matching piece during this 5-minute game, the pair earned money (25 cents). Another participant (the observer) simply watched on as this was happening, silently judging.

Like the previous experiment, a seemingly unscripted social offense was inserted into the procedure. Here, the confederate player began by giving unclear instructions, answered his cell phone in the middle of the game, chatting idly for 1.5 minutes (“What?.... No?.... I can’t believe he did that… Really?”), then hung up and continued giving confusing instructions to the target. Against the backdrop of this laboratory ruse, participants were in fact randomly assigned to one of three different apology conditions. In the spontaneous condition, the “harmdoer” turned to the target and said, “I’m sorry, I really screwed that up for you.” In the coerced condition, the harmdoer apologized only after a confederate observer castigated the harmdoer, “That was terrible. I can’t believe you took a phone call. You totally ruined it for him [or her]. You really need to apologize.” Finally, in the no apology condition, the harmdoer just sighed and began counting the number of completed pieces.

As in the foregoing experiment, targets forgave both of the apologists equally but expressed lingering anger towards the player who didn’t apologize at all. For the silent observers, however, the person who offered a coerced apology was judged even more harshly than the one who offered no apology at all. Risen and Gilovich point out that this intriguing finding “is consistent with findings from the legal arena, which suggest that apologies may only benefit harmdoers if their responsibility for the harm is clear. When the responsibility is clear, apologies increase the chance of plaintiffs and defendants reaching a settlement. If responsibility is ambiguous, however, apologies can be costly to the defendant because of the admission of responsibility.” The authors suggest that, in the present case, observers may have actually given the harmdoer the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the phone call was indeed an emergency, or maybe some observers blamed the participant for not being able to follow muddled instructions on the puzzle game—until the harmdoer apologized.

And speaking of apologies that are better left unsaid, I may have recently offered one or two myself.

In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering on Facebook and never miss an installment again.