Carnegie Mellon University

New research presents a framework for understanding why thanking, apologizing, bragging and blaming matter so much and reveals the underlying psychology.

March 14, 2019

Thanking and Apologizing: Talk That Isn't Cheap

We place a high value on teaching children to say "thank you" and "I'm sorry." As adults, these simple words are central to many social interactions. Uttering the words is easy, so why do people often hold back? And why does the failure to confer thanks or to apologize so often lead to bad feelings or even conflict?

new paper from Carnegie Mellon University researchers introduces a framework, "Responsibility Exchange Theory," for understanding why thanking and apologizing, as well as bragging and blaming, matter so much, and presents novel experimental studies that reveal the psychology underlying these communications.

"All four of these communications are tools used to transfer responsibility from one person to another," said Shereen J. Chaudhry, who conducted the research while a Ph.D. student in CMU's Department of Social and Decision Sciences. "They relay information about credit or blame, and they involve image-based trade-offs between appearing competent and appearing warm."

"Our framework helps to make sense of diverse body of research documenting the importance of these forms of communications," said co-author George Loewenstein, the Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Economics and Psychology at CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. "Research has shown that these communications — and their absence — can make or break relationships and affect material outcomes ranging from restaurant tips to medical malpractice settlements."

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