The Link Between Apologies and the Willingness of Low Status Groups to Seek Help

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This work extends research on intergroup apology by examining the influence of an apology on the willingness of low status group members to seek assistance from the high status outgroup. In line with our hypothesis, we found that under unstable status relations, Israeli Arab participants (i.e., low-status group) reported less willingness to seek dependency-oriented help from Israeli Jews (high-status group), following a formal apology by a Jewish representative. This finding is consistent with previous research reporting the reluctance to seek dependency-oriented help under unstable status relations (Halabi, Dovidio & Nadler, 2013), and research revealing that when status relations are perceived as unstable, apology by a representative of an advantaged group can arouse suspicion and mistrust among members of a disadvantaged group (Shnabel et al., 2015).

Furthermore, we demonstrated that offering a formal apology might not be enough to establish intergroup relations of cooperation and trust. This is consistent with Hornsey et al., (2015), who found that victimized groups were well aware of the context and changes in the status quo that may have persuaded the perpetrator group to offer such an apology. Our results suggest that when such changes occur, offering a formal apology may be only a first step in the process of reconciliation, but certainly not an exclusive step leading to genuine change.

The present findings demonstrate further the consequences of such an apology for the type of help sought by members of a low status group, with implications for power relations between the groups. In that, they integrate previous research on the impact of an intergroup apology (Wohl, Hornsey, & Bennet, 2012) and the relation between intergroup helping and power relations (Nadler & Halabi, 2006, 2015). Previous literature addressing the effectiveness of a formal apology in relations between victim and perpetrator groups has produced mixed findings (Blatz & Philpot, 2010; Hornsey, Wohl, & Philpot, 2015). The current findings raise more doubt regarding the role of apologies, suggesting that structural variables that may motivate high status groups to apologize (i.e., instability of hierarchy) are the same ones that may undermine the effectiveness of such apology (Shnabel et al., 2015). Formal apologies under unstable status relations where low-status group members believe they can change the existing hierarchy do not necessarily repair relationships. On the contrary, such apologies may raise suspicion of the low-status group, leading to greater reluctance to seek help from the high-status group, and to more negative reactions as a result of receiving such help.

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Theoretically, a formal apology and the perceived stability of intergroup relations could combine to affect the type of assistance sought in two not mutually exclusive ways. One possibility is that when status relations are stable, members of a low status group may accept an apology from a representative of a high status group and respond in a particularly positive way. This result might occur when status relations are stable because members of a low status group may see the apology as genuine rather than manipulative. Under these conditions, in which changes in relative group status are unlikely, low status group members may be less suspicious of the motives of the high status group, and view the apology as a gesture of support and solidarity, which, as previously shown (Chernyak-Hai, Halabi, & Nadler, 2014), could make them less reluctant to seek dependency-oriented help and less motivated to pursue autonomy-oriented assistance.

The substantial difference we observed in responses to an apology as a function of the stability of group relations could also involve a particularly negative reaction to the apology when status relations are unstable. Because members of low status groups are highly vigilant to cues of bias (Vorauer, 2006) and skeptic of apologies specifically (Shnabel et al., 2015), an apology offered when status relations are unstable may exacerbate the avoidance of dependency-oriented help and preference of autonomy-oriented help, as specified by the Intergroup Helping as Status Relations model (Nadler & Halabi, 2006, 2015). Although one would expect that an apology would ameliorate such negative consequences of intergroup helping by creating social proximity between group members that may invoke more empathic concerns that can, in turn, motivate more help giving and seeking, our study suggests a less optimistic outcome. The combination of apology with the belief that social hierarchies can be changed seems to drive the disadvantaged group to resent reliance on the advantaged outgroup’s help. Positive gestures from the advantaged group – including both apology and help – might elicit feelings of anger among them and be rejected (Harth, Hornsey, & Barlow, 2011). In that sense, the picture becomes more complicated. On one hand, we would expect that the perpetrator group to be more “ready” to offer an apology when it sees that reality is changing in terms of intergroup power relations. On the other hand, however, this apology might be perceived as a way of coping with the reality of this change, which in turn undermines the perceived sincerity of such an apology. In our view, in order for an apology to be effective in terms of facilitating genuine cooperation between groups, trust must first be established (Wohl, Hornsey, & Bennett, 2011; Halabi, Dovidio & Nadler, 2013). With trust, the apology may be perceived as more sincere, and thus generate more positive intergroup relations.

Limitations and Future Directions

Although our findings are promising, this work has several limitations. First, the measurement used for seeking dependency- or autonomy-oriented help was based on self-report in a hypothetical situation. However, direct expressions of bias are often more evident when behaviors are spontaneous or when respondents experience a high level of cognitive load (Dovidio, Kawakami, Smoak, & Gaertner, 2009). This may help illuminate the underlying motivation of participants, particularly for seeking dependency-oriented assistance from a lower-status group. Future studies should measure help seeking using other measures, in addition to self-reports. Second, this study has examined a situation where a formal apology is given, in contrast to no apology, without considering the type of apology presented (Halabi et al., 2018). Future studies could examine the effect of different types of apologies (i.e., intergroup and interpersonal apology) on the willingness to seek help and on reconciliation while considering the condition of actively not apologizing or a neutral condition in which no apology is offered.

In addition, we note that our focus in the current study was on Arabs and Jews in Israel, groups that have a long history of tension and conflict with unique historical, cultural, and religious elements that could potentially limit the generalizability of our research to other forms of intergroup relations. Therefore, future research could examine our hypotheses in a more neutral context of relations between high and low status groups, a context that does not involve real existential conflict.


Our findings shed light on the relationship between apology, intergroup status relations, and willingness to seek help from the high-status group. It turns out that apology does not always promote reconciliation, and that the positive and negative effects of an apology depend on the circumstances (e.g. status relations and the existing relationship between the groups). These findings support further research into the field of intergroup relations, conflicts, and reconciliation.

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