The Science Of I’m Sorry
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How an apology helps to restore relations.
Many of us have been raised to think that anger is a bad thing. Something that should be avoided at all costs. In this post we discuss how it may be a good friend, to be nurtured and cultivated and when and how it may be avoided when things go south.
First a few words about emotions in general. There was a time when emotions were considered a distraction, things that prevent us from being rational, thinking objectively, making good decisions and executing them. Thanks to the many studies in recent years that all has changed. We now have a fair idea of the role of emotions in decision making, planning, even sticking to those plans and decisions and updating them where necessary.
At the core, all emotions (fear, happiness, disgust, anxiety, surprise et. al) play an important role to help us to survive and thrive. And this implies taking decisions in our self interest. Personal to us as an individual or to a community depending upon how we identify ourselves belonging to a particular group in a given context (Self Identity).
Now coming back to the topic, Anger is one of the most studied emotions by behavioral and neuroscientists. It’s easy to synthesize and measure anger in a lab. There are a few things research tells us about anger.
1. The word Anger covers a vast spectrum of emotions of varying intensities ranging from mild irritation to annoyance, aggression all the way up to hostility and then fury and rage. Unlike some other emotions like disgust, Anger is not a learnt emotion. Not something we learn as we grow, but we are very much born with it. Even a 5 days old baby who is playfully waving its hands and legs, if you try to hold its feet and pin it down even for a few seconds would show all the classic symptoms of anger. It’s face becomes red, heart beat goes up and the other physiological and neurochemical changes that may be measured in a lab.
Milder forms of anger such as aggression are very much useful and provide the much needed strength and motivation to overcome obstacles. Anger is an emotion that starts to impair our sense of risk and pain by releasing natural painkillers and other suppressants into the system. That is why a hurt player or a wounded soldier would sometime get aggressive, perhaps even be considered a daredevil (in hindsight) and do something quite dramatic in the face of all odds, fighting and winning against more powerful opponents.
But when the intensity of anger crosses into the domain of hostility, fury or rage, there is a complete breakdown of our sense of risk, pain, physical and mental awareness. And that is, when bad things start to happen.
2. The underpinnings of anger lies in our sense of fairness. An obligation or desire to set right what has been wronged. Anger cannot arise or sustain without the presence of a retribution component to punish the perpetrator for the undesirable act, which we think was unfair or did not fit our moral code (however convoluted or illogical that might appear to someone else). The tendency is to punish the agent sometime physically; sometimes just cognitively by inducing the emotions of sadness, shame, guilt, even fear. The objective: to prevent a repeat of any future such transgression.
3. Anger is always directed towards an intelligent agent. Someone who we think is capable of thinking and taking independent decisions; individuals, groups of people, governments and like. We may love food or watching movies or fear electric shocks or be disgusted of inanimate things but we cannot be angry towards just things, events or experiences.
Imagine you are in a hurry rushing through a store and suddenly an elbow thrusts you in the abdomen, As you recover, one can sense some anger rising towards this person. Then suddenly you realize, Oh! it’s not a person but just a mannequin to display clothes. We don’t start to exhibit our anger towards the mannequin. Immediately the focus of our anger shifts to the irresponsible worker who pushed the mannequin out there. Now sometimes it may appear as if inanimate objects etc. were being harmed or abused, but the real anger is directed towards the perpetrator with some intelligence (who we think caused the act).
Now this is also interesting and a topic of debate among behavioral scientists. Where and how would anger be directed towards in the case of a mishap in Artificially Intelligent systems: self driving cars, robots etc. Who would be blamed? The inanimate (but now intelligent) car, the creator (programmer/engineer), the owner or the Government which allowed them.
4. The dissipation of anger follows an inverse exponential decay path. The intensity of anger reduces slowly at first and then much sharply as in the graph below.
Courtesy International Handbook of Anger
Anger and other emotions are like a chemical storm in the brain. Imagine a bucket filled with water and some colored sand-like particles which is then stirred vigorously. Left to its own it would take some time for things to settle down before calm is restored.
Now the question that arises. How does an apology fit into this picture? We all know that an apology on the part of the offender generally helps to dissipate anger. But how so?
Let’s think from the perpetrators point for a second. What does a sincere apology actually do? Isn’t it just another way of saying that normally I am a good and moral person, but this particular act that bothered you was not so. Therefore a sincere apology, in a way, helps to separate the agent from the act. Once the agent is cleared of the act, anger subsides much quickly. Roger Petersen and Sarah Zukerman in The International Handbook of Anger describe the process as follows. When offenders apologize, anger, the desire for revenge, and levels of punishment are hypothesized to diminish. The causal processes are fourfold. First, by exhibiting the emotions of sorrow, sadness, regret, shame, or guilt, the offender demonstrates to the victim his/her humanity which enables the victim to overcome stereotypes brought on by anger. Second, the apology produces a separation between the offender and his negative action; the offense is shamed, but the perpetrator is not. In this way, the perpetrator’s inherent self-worth is redeemed and s/he becomes potentially worthy of restored relations and reconciliation with the victim.
The above graph for the decay of anger now becomes something like the one below. Doesn’t disappear altogether immediately. The chemical storm in the brain takes a while to settle down.
Courtesy International Handbook of Anger
To conclude; Anger is a spectrum of emotions, aimed at an intelligent agent, to preserve self identity in case of a transgress and very much essential for survival. The higher intensity emotion destroys our ability to reason. Unless provoked continuously it comes down on its own following an inverse exponential curve. A sincere apology and explanation separates the agent from the act and accelerates the process of restored relations.