Owning our mistakes


To err is human; to forgive, divine. Somewhere in between sits the willingness to admit when we’ve done wrong, and to take ownership of our transgressions against others. This is the crucial ingredient of a sincere apology and the first step towards forgiveness, divine or otherwise.

It can be hard enough to face up to our simple mistakes, which may impugn our competence, but admitting that we’ve done something bad, or perhaps even just said something out of line, is even more difficult: it threatens our self-image as essentially decent, moral people. Even when people do acknowledge that something they’ve done has caused hurt or offense, it’s not uncommon for the subsequent apology to be more of a pseudo-apology than the real deal.

Richard Dawkins is currently one of the masters of the form: he’ll causally toss out a provocative Tweet, and when the inevitable backlash ensues he’ll offer an ‘apology’ that usually lays the blame squarely on the shoulders of his audience. He recently caused a storm when he suggested that it would be immoral not to abort a foetus identified as having Down’s syndrome. In response, he offered apologies such as, “My phraseology may have been tactlessly vulnerable to misunderstanding, but I can’t help feeling that at least half the problem lies in a wanton eagerness to misunderstand” and “I apologise for impugning the morality of the approximately ten percent of women who deliberately choose NOT to abort a Down’s fetus”. (There’s even a comic ‘Richard Dawkins Apology Generator’ that will provide you with ready-made non-apologies should you need them.)

Personal experience teaches us that some better are better at acknowledging their moral missteps than others – but what is it that makes one person more open to this self-recognition than others?

Stanford University psychologists Karina Schumann and Carol Dweck recently set out to explore one possibility: that the degree to which we see people’s personality and thinking as fundamentally fixed and unchanging, or malleable and open to revision, may be an important factor. Their new study is published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Previous research by Dweck has shown that people vary in how malleable they see various traits such as personality and intelligence. At one end of the spectrum, people see these aspects of who we are as essentially set in stone (the ‘fixed mindset’), while at the other end these traits are seen as subject to change (the ‘growth mindset’).

Dweck has found that these ‘implicit theories’ about the fixedness or malleability of who we are affects our behaviour in many ways. For example, people with a growth mindset are more likely to persist with difficult tasks, and to re-try them after failure, because they treat these as opportunities for learning and growth. By contrast, those with a more fixed mindset tend to treat struggles or outright failure as a damning indictment of their fixed skills and abilities, and are more likely to just give up.

A growth mindset also makes people more likely to engage with others who have acted badly, or revealed a prejudice, because their belief that people can change makes voicing their concerns worthwhile. Those with a fixed mindset, however, see the behaviours of others as a set, intrinsic part of their personality, and so see less point in trying to talk to them.

In Schumann and Dweck’s new research, they looked at how mindset affects acceptance of personal responsibility for doing wrong to people we’re close to. In the first study, the ‘other’ was one half of a romantic relationship. After recruiting 60 married or cohabiting heterosexual couples, who on average had been together just under 5 years, they got both partners to filled in some questionnaires to assess whether they tended towards a growth or fixed mindset. Each partner rated their agreement, on a 6-point scale, with a bunch of statements. Some reflected a ‘fixed mindset’ view (“Someone’s personality is a part of them that they can’t change very much” and “People can’t really change what kind of personality they have. Some people have a good personality and some don’t and they can’t change much”); others supported a growth perspective (“Anybody can change their personality a lot” and “No matter who somebody is and how they act, they can always change their ways”).

A few days later, they were asked to complete a 7-day diary in which they reported any offenses they committed against their partner, and recorded whether they apologised for these, and what the content of their apology amounted to. Each offense was also rated, subjectively, for its seriousness, and how guilty and responsible they felt about committing it.

Although people with fixed and growth mindsets were equally likely to offer an apology (perhaps just saying, “I’m sorry”), the growthers were more likely to acknowledge responsibility in theirs (“I’m sorry I snapped at you”).

It’s one thing to show that mindset co-varies with apologising style, and another to show that differences in mindset cause different levels of responsibility-taking after a transgression. To get at this causal question, Schumann and Dweck ran another experiment in which they induced either a fixed or growth mindset.

This was achieved by getting participants to read one of two articles. One bolstered the possibility of change, and contained claims such as “Personality characteristics are changeable and can be influenced over time. In fact, personality characteristics are basically a bundle of possibilities that wait to be developed and cultivated”. The other supported the fixed worldview, stating “Personality characteristics seem to be rather fixed and to develop consistently along the same path over time. Personality characteristics might start out as a bundle of possibilities, but in the early years, the possibilities appear to solidify into a cohesive personality profile”.

After being primed to adopt either a fixed or growth mindset, participants read about three scenarios. In one, they imagined themselves having a bad day at work, and being abrupt and unhelpful to a new colleague asking questions. In another, they imagined offending an acquaintance at the gym by teasing them for not working out hard enough. In the final imaginary scenario, they failed to live up to their promise to water a neighbour’s plants while they were away, leaving most of the plants to die.

For each scenario, participants were first asked what they would say to the ‘victim’, and then rated how angry they thought the victim would be, how severe the consequences of their transgression were, and how much they blamed themselves for what happened.
People induced to adopt a fixed mindset were just as forthcoming with an apology as those in the growth mindset condition, and both groups rated the severity of their actions, the anger their victim would experience, and their self-blame roughly equally. Yet as before, growthers were more likely to acknowledge responsibility for their actions in their apologies.

In a subsequent round of experiments, Schumann and Dweck set out to dig a little deeper into what really drives people in a growth mindset to accept responsibility for the things they do in a way that those in a fixed mindset do not. As in the previous experiment, participants were primed with articles defending either the fixedness or malleability of personality. They then imagined themselves in the following situation: you’ve arranged to pick up a friend and to go for dinner, but just as the working day is coming to a close your boss dumps some work on your desk, saying that he knows he’s sprung this on you at the last minute, but the sooner it can get done, the better. You stay late to finish it off, and by the time you meet your friend, you’re half an hour late and she’s soaked and shivering having been caught in a heavy downpour. (The researchers specified that the friend doesn’t have a phone, so you couldn’t have just called to let them know you’d be late.)

After imagining themselves keeping their friend waiting like this, participants were split into two groups. In one, they imagined offering an apology to their friend in which they accepted responsibility: “It’s my fault. My boss dropped a project on my desk just as I was about to leave, and I stayed late to finish it. I’m so sorry for being late to pick you up”. In the other, they imagined offering a more defensive, justificatory kind of apology: “It’s not my fault. My boss dropped a project on my desk just as I was about to leave, and I stayed late to finish it because I thought it was the appropriate thing to do”.

Once they’d imagined given these responsibility-taking or self-justifying apologies, participants were assessed for how anxiety inducing these different scenarios were for people with different mindsets. This was measured using a well-known ‘threat accessibility’ test, which involves finding out how readily anxiety-related words come to mind. This is probed by getting study subjects to complete word stems like THREA_, which could be made to form the neutral THREAD or the anxiety-related THREAT (likewise, STRE_ _ can form STREAK or STRESS, and LO_ER can be made into LOVER or LOSER).

In the final step of this experiment, everyone had to rate how appropriate and effective the apology that they had been asked to imagine making would be in that situation.
Remember, there were four groups here: 1) those who were put into a fixed mindset and imagined making an apology in which they accepted responsibility; 2) those in a fixed mindset imagining themselves making a justifying apology; 3) those in growth mindset offering an apology and taking responsibility; and 4) those in a growth mindset imagining themselves making a justifying apology.

Schumann and Dweck found that across groups people rated the apology in which responsibility was acknowledged more positively: everyone knows that such apologies are better, more sincere, and more effective. However, they also found that when people in a fixed mindset imagined accepting responsibility, they came up with more anxiety-related words than growthers offering the same apology: that is, for people with a fixed mindset, offering an apology that acknowledge responsibility causes anxiety (and therefore heightened accessibility to anxiety-related words), in a way that it doesn’t for those in a growth mindset. (Among the two groups imagining themselves giving a justifying apology — fixed versus growth — there was no difference.)

As Schumann and Dweck write, people in a growth mindset “might feel less threatened by admitting fault because they believe that doing so can help them grow as a person and develop their relationship with the victim—outcomes that render the prospect of accepting blame for an error less threatening to one’s self-identity”.

So in a final round of experiments, they set out to see whether growthers are more motivated to learn from their own transgressions. To do so, they assessed people’s default mindset along the spectrum of fixed to growth, and then got them to imagine two scenarios, one in which they’d let a neighbour down, the other in which they’d been rude and unhelpful to a colleague.

Then they rated their agreement with statements like “I would work hard to learn something about myself from this situation”, “I would work hard to use this situation to grow as a person”, and “I would work hard to use this situation to understand myself better”. These tapped into the motivation to improve oneself.

Another set of statements looked at motivation to improve relationships: “I would work hard to learn something about my relationship with my neighbor [colleague] from this situation”, “I would work hard to use this situation to grow my relationship with my neighbor [colleague]”, and “I would work hard to use this situation to understand my relationship with my neighbor [colleague] better”.

After rating these sentences for agreement, participants were asked to imagine that their neighbour or colleague was sitting with them, and then to rate how likely they would be to say something like “I didn’t help you with what you needed and I was unkind to you”, or “It was wrong of me to treat you that way”.

Growthers were not only more likely to accept responsibility for the transgressions in these scenarios, but were also more willing to make the effort to use these incidents as learning experiences about themselves, and their relationship with the victim. What’s more, an analysis of the data generated in this fourth study suggests that the motivation to learn actually mediates the willingness to accept responsibility.

As Schumann and Dweck conclude, “These studies tell a cohesive story about how theories of personality affect transgressors’ willingness to accept responsibility for their offenses … [and reveal] a robust predictor of transgressors’ responsibility-accepting behavior” (in this case, motivation to learn about yourself and your relationships). Looking forward, the authors suggest that “Future research might explore whether greater motivation to learn predicts other important conflict resolution behaviors, such as attempting to take the perspective of or empathize with one’s conflict partner”.

One thing that seems clear from these studies, and many that have preceded it, is that a growth mindset is generally a good thing, offering many benefits personally and for relationships. Yet Schumann and Dweck are open to the possibility that a growth mindset may not always be so helpful. “[T]he current studies only assessed responsibility-accepting behavior in situations where the transgressor was at least partially responsible for the negative outcome”, they write. “However, it is important to determine whether some [people with a growth mindset] might accept responsibility for actions they are not actually responsible for, which could be problematic in situations where they are vulnerable (e.g., abusive relationships) or low-status (e.g., work settings where women are underrepresented)”.

About Dan Jones

Dan Jones is a freelance science writer
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