You might think that apologies would be a good way to soften the blow of social rejection. But apparently, saying “I’m sorry” when you turn down someone’s request to be included socially can be more like pouring salt in the wound.

At least, that’s what a new study researchers from Dartmouth College and University of Texas suggests.

In the study, people were asked to consider hypothetical situations that involved explicit social rejection. These included scenarios like turning down a date with someone, rebuffing a coworker’s interest in joining a lunch group, and saying no to someone interested in becoming roommates.

One group of people was asked to write the exact words they would use to let someone down in these situations. A separate group was then asked to put themselves in the shoes of the person being rejected and given the responses written by the first group. They then gave feedback on how they’d react to the rejections.

It turned out that how hurt people’s feelings were by the rejections depended on whether the rejections included apologies. When the person doing the rejecting apologized, the person being rejected tended to have more hurt feelings. Overall, 39 percent of the rejections included apologies.

However, the effect of apologies did depend on the specific type of rejection. In particular, apologies didn’t seem to matter one way or the other for romantic rejections but made more of a difference for other types of rejections.

Next, the researchers looked at how likely people were to take a form of petty revenge after being rejected. In this experiment, psychology students were given the option of working together with people they believed to be other psychology students – but the other student always rejected them, either with or without saying “I’m sorry.”

Later, the participants were given the option to allocate hot sauce for the person who had rejected them to eat. They were told that the other person would have to eat all the hot sauce and that the other person did not like spicy foods. When participants had been rejected with an apology, they allocated more hot sauce for the other person to eat, suggesting a desire for vengeance. This was true even when the participants claimed they didn’t have hurt feelings.

Overall, then, there are a couple conclusions here. First, it appears that an apology can actually make a rejection hurt more. And second, you might want to think twice about rejecting people who are about to prepare a meal for you!

Image: Flickr/Caro Wallis