In last week's news, there was a fair amount of interest in a study finding that women apologize more than men do. Curiously, there has been no coverage so far, as far as I can tell, by the New York Times, by the Washington Post, by BBC News, or by NPR. I hope that this is not because the reporters, editors, and pundits at these more serious publications collectively decided, contrary to their usual judgment in such cases, that this was a bit of gender-stereotyping fluff better left to the tabloids.
In my opinion the study was well designed and well done (with the usual caveat that the subjects were all 20-ish undergraduate psychology students), and the paper documenting it was clear, careful, and thought-provoking. Also, for a change, the press coverage seems to have been fairly accurate so far. I suspect that this is a tribute to the paper's lucidity, and perhaps also to the communication skills of Karina Schumann, who was the first author and the person most often interviewed by reporters.
The paper was Karina Schumann and Michael Ross, "Why Women Apologize More Than Men: Gender Differences in Thresholds for Perceiving Offensive Behavior", Psychological Science, published online 9/30/2010. It documents two experiments, of which the first was a diary study involving 33 female and 33 male students from the University of Waterloo:
Participants were asked to complete two sections of an online questionnaire every evening for 12 consecutive nights. For the transgressor section, participants described up to three instances that day in which "you apologized to someone or did something to someone else that might have deserved an apology (regardless of whether or not you apologized)." For the victim section, participants described up to three instances that day in which "someone else apologized to you or did something to you that might have deserved an apology (regardless of whether or not he or she apologized)." The order of the transgressor and victim sections was counterbalanced across participants. If participants could not recall an event for the first section, they proceeded to the second section. If they were unable to remember an event for the second section, they terminated the session.
For each event, participants reported what occurred, who was involved (including gender information), and whether they had apologized or received an apology. Participants reported the exact wording of the apologies to the best of their abilities.
The women reported giving 37% more apologies than the men did (217 vs. 158). They also reported committing 36% more apology-worthy offenses than the men did (267 vs. 196), so that the men and women apologized for the same proportion of (what they reported to be) apology-worthy offenses (81.3% vs. 80.6%).
In the other direction, the women reported getting 28% more apologies than the men did (142 vs. 111), and being the victim of 48% more offenses than the men (242 vs. 164).
The paper's basic conclusion:
The diary data suggest that women offer more apologies than men do because women have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior. If so, gender differences in the perceived severity of offenses may lead men and women to have different views about whether or not an apology is warranted. As both transgressors and victims, women are more likely than men to judge offenses as meriting an apology.
The most interesting part of this study, for me, was the way that the researchers coded the reported offenses and the reported apologies. For the offenses,
[T]wo independent coders categorized the offenses into four types, adapted from the offense types described by Holmes (1989): (a) relational (e.g., insulting someone), (b) failed obligation (e.g., failing to complete chores), (c) inconvenience (e.g., calling a wrong number), and (d) physical or material (e.g., bumping into someone, damaging someone's belongings). Interobserver reliability was high (κ = .94).
It's impressive that they coded everything twice and calculated the kappa statistic, which is a useful measure of inter-rater reliability. It's also impressive that their kappa was so high.
On the apology side, they present an interesting featural decomposition:
A comprehensive apology contains as many as eight distinguishable elements: remorse, acceptance of responsibility, admission of wrongdoing, acknowledgment of harm, promise to behave better, request for forgiveness, offer of repair, and explanation. […]
Two independent coders (one male and one female) who were blind to participants' gender coded the apologies for the presence of each of the eight apology elements (κ = .92). Discrepancies between coders were resolved through discussion. We summed the number of elements in each apology to represent its comprehensiveness.
Again, the gender-blind double coding, with a high value for the kappa statistic, is impressive. And having coded the "comprehensiveness" of apologies, they were able to draw an additional conclusion:
[T]here was no gender difference in how men and women apologized. It appears that once men and women categorized a behavior as offensive, they were equally likely to apologize for it, and their apologies were similarly effusive.
The study's other negative results were also interesting, among them these:
Women and men did not differ in the proportion of offenses they reported as transgressors versus victims […] The proportion of each offense type reported did not differ as a function of gender or perspective […] Transgressor's gender did not significantly interact with the gender of the victim to affect the number of apologies reported or the proportion of offenses for which participants apologized.
There was one other positive (in terms of sex difference) result:
Men and women did not differ in the proportion of offenses they reported in the various relationship categories, except for offenses occurring between romantic partners. Women reported more [i.e. a higher proportion of] offenses occurring between them and a romantic partner (13.21%) than men reported (4.24%) …. Participants did not differ in the number of offenses they reported from the transgressor and victim perspectives within each relationship type.
Is this news? Well, yes:
According to various academic and popular writers, women apologize readily for their transgressions, whereas men do not. Some commentators suggest that women are too apologetic, but most presume that men are insufficiently contrite (Engel, 2001; Lazare, 2004; Tannen, 1996, 2001). These commentators offer a set of related explanations for the gender difference, the basic tenet being that men associate apologies with weakness. For example, Engel (2001) argued that men refuse to apologize because they have difficulty admitting they are wrong. She suggested that for men, admitting wrongdoing is like "losing a power struggle," and apologizing therefore hurts men's "delicate egos" (p. 49). Adopting a different argument, Tannen (1996) reasoned that women readily apologize because they are more concerned than men are with showing courtesy to other people. Whatever the interpretation, the bottom line is exemplified by the title of comedian Jim Belushi's (2006) book on manhood: Real Men Don't Apologize.
According to Schumann & Ross's (I think sensible and careful) interpretation of their experimental results, this is all wrong. In their data, at least, there's no sex difference in willingness to see oneself as being in the wrong, or in willingness to admit error, or in propensity to apologize given a perceived offense. Rather, (Waterloo undergraduate) women are somewhat more likely than (Waterloo undergraduate) men to perceive a given piece of behavior as offensive, and also are likely to perceive the degree of offense as somewhat greater, whether they're the transgressor or the victim. As a result, the women in their sample were somewhat more likely to see a given behavior — their own or someone else's — as a transgression requiring apology.
Schumann and Ross speculate sensibly about the reasons for this difference:
What is the psychological basis of gender differences in perceptions of the severity and frequency of offenses? One possibility is that women might perceive more offenses because they are more focused on the experiences of other people and on maintaining harmony in their relationships […] A second possibility is that men have a higher threshold for both physical and social pain.
This sort of study is on the boundary between linguistics and social psychology — and it would be nice to see more interdisciplinary communication and collaboration across that boundary.
[I should note the usual problem with potential misinterpretation of generic plurals. One thing that's lacking in this paper is a clear picture of how the within-sex variation compares to the differences in male and female mean values.]