WELLNESS
10/02/2015 11:49 am ET

Why It's So Hard To Admit When You're Wrong

It's one word, Matt Damon!
NIKLAS HALLE'N via Getty Images

Recently, Matt Damon came under fire for making tone-deaf comments during an episode of HBO's "Project Greenlight." The actor (poorly) attempted to explain diversity in film while speaking with producer Effie Brown, a black woman who knows a thing or two about diversity (or lack there of) in Hollywood.  

Damon later addressed his remarks, saying in part, "I am sorry that they offended some people, but, at the very least, I am happy that they started a conversation about diversity in Hollywood."

However pure his intentions, his apology was missing something pretty imperative: An actual apology. 

Damon was later more contrite about his diversity comments in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, but not before making another set of offensive remarks suggesting gay actors shouldn't come out.

Of course Damon isn't the only high-profile offender. There's a legacy of non-apologies in the public eye, from Jonah Hill to Miley Cyrus. The pattern is familiar, with perpetrators saying, "I'm sorry you're offended" rather than "I'm sorry I offended you."

Their behavior poses a pretty powerful question: Why do we have such a hard time owning up to our wrongdoings?

Elke Vogelsang via Getty Images

The secret to our apology aversion may lie in a neurological bias toward taking a rosy view of ourselves. According to social psychologist Elliot Aronson, co-author of the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), our brains believe that we're always doing "the right thing" despite our behavior showing the contrary. 

This sometimes creates mental tension, frequently referred to in psychology as cognitive dissonance, and occurs when our actions don't follow our beliefs. It's the same phenomenon that allows a smoker to both know cigarettes are unhealthy and still blow through two packs a day, Aronson wrote.

Many people naturally behave in a way that aligns with a certain self-concept, agreed Alex Lickerman, assistant vice president for the University of Chicago's student health and counseling services and author of The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self. So when we apologize for something we did or said, our subconscious feels somewhat fraudulent.

"It's admitting that you're not consistent with your self-concept, which is very difficult to tolerate," Lickerman told The Huffington Post. "If you claim you're not a bigot, or whatever it is you identify with, to apologize for doing the contrary is to admit you did those things." 

But it doesn't have to be this way. The key to getting better at apologizing is freeing ourselves from labels, according to Lickerman.

"Just because you failed doesn't mean you're a failure," he said. "To get better at saying you're sorry, you first need to disconnect from the idea that a mistake turns you into someone you know you're not."

There are also a few other pointers to keep in mind when it comes time to fess up to an error, Lickerman explained. Here are a few hallmarks of a good apology:

  • Take responsibility. If you're apologizing for something, you need to own what you did, Lickerman advises.
  • Offer an honest explanation. "It needs to be genuine," Lickermain said. "People can spot a disingenuous attitude from a mile away."
  • Determine to do better in the future. An apology doesn't mean anything if it isn't a lesson.
  • Be done with it. "Don't fawn over it, don't draw it out," Lickerman said. "Apologize then move on."

Ultimately, Lickerman said, apologizing for something we know is wrong will help clear that tension that cognitive dissonance creates. And isn't that a lot easier than living our lives defending poor behavior?

Just a little food for thought for Damon's next press tour.

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