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Apologies and moral behavior: How apologizing versus not apologizing influences moral licensing and moral cleansing

Ludwig, Justin Michael (2023) Apologies and moral behavior: How apologizing versus not apologizing influences moral licensing and moral cleansing. Master's Thesis, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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Apologies are a tool for moral repair after an interpersonal offense. Yet, little is known about the extent to which apologies repair transgressors’ moral self-image and how this might affect their subsequent behavior. Investigating these potential negative or positive downstream consequences of apologies offers insights into whether there are conditions under which apologies might backfire, freeing transgressors up to withdraw from subsequent opportunities to engage in moral behavior. In Study 1 (N = 243), using a hypothetical offense, I found that apologizing not only repaired moral self-image but also bolstered moral self-image above baseline levels. In Study 2 (N = 211), I examined whether transgressors who apologize (vs. do not apologize) to a victim feel licensed to engage in less moral subsequent behavior. Participants read the same offense from Study 1 and then imagined a situation where they could take credit for a coworker’s ideas. Findings from Study 1 were replicated, however apologizing did not lead to moral licensing. Withholding an apology led to moral cleansing, but only under high levels of perceived negativity of the offense. In Study 3 (N = 593), participants recalled an unresolved conflict, wrote an apology letter (vs. no apology and control), and then had an opportunity to donate bonus money to a non-profit organization. Apologizing did not license participants to donate less bonus money and withholding an apology did not lead to moral cleansing. These studies suggest that apologizing has restorative effects on transgressors’ moral self-image whereas withholding an apology could possibly leave transgressors in a morally depleted state. However, these studies did not consistently demonstrate that apologizing vs. not apologizing impacted subsequent moral behavior in the form of moral licensing and moral cleansing. I discuss the limitations and potential reasons for these null findings, as well as directions for future research.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Ludwig, Justin Michaeljustin.ludwig@pitt.edujml2360000-0002-4039-7722
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairSchumann,
Committee MemberForest,
Committee MemberBinning,
Date: 27 January 2023
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 20 October 2022
Approval Date: 27 January 2023
Submission Date: 7 December 2022
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 84
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > Psychology
Degree: MS - Master of Science
Thesis Type: Master's Thesis
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: Apology, Moral self-image, Moral licensing, Moral cleansing, Conflict resolution
Date Deposited: 27 Jan 2023 19:32
Last Modified: 27 Jan 2023 19:32

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  • Apologies and moral behavior: How apologizing versus not apologizing influences moral licensing and moral cleansing. (deposited 27 Jan 2023 19:32) [Currently Displayed]


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