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

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?

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.

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