People with high social status, such as influencial businessmen and powerful politicians, are more likely to be perceived as insincere when they apologise, a study has found.
"The high-status person is perceived as someone who can control their emotions more effectively and use them strategically, and accordingly they are perceived as less sincere," said Arik Cheshin of the University of Haifa in Israel.
"This perception applies to the world of business and work, and it's reasonable to assume it applies to politicians, too. The more senior they are, the less authentic their emotions are perceived as being," said Cheshin, one of the authors of the study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
In experiments involving hundreds of participants, the researchers examined whether the power status of a person who has committed a transgression influences trust in that person and the ability to forgive them.
In the first part of the experiment, researchers told the participants about an employee who had been found forging documents, leading to the imposition of a fine on the company.
They showed the participants pictures of the employee expressing various emotions in a later staff meeting - happiness, sadness, anger and fear.
The next experiment used video clips showing the same emotions.
In another experiment, the researchers examined the same situation, but this time relating to a real incident.
In all the cases, some of the participants were told that the person was a junior employee, while others thought that he was the CEO.
The findings showed that in all three cases the CEO's emotions were perceived as less sincere than those of the junior employee.
When the researchers explored the reason for this difference, it emerged that the participants perceived the CEO as someone who can control their emotions and even use them strategically.
"The assumption is that the CEO has much more to lose, and accordingly has a stronger motivation to try to use their emotions to create empathy. Accordingly, the participants described them as less sincere," researchers said.
Next, the researchers examined a similar situation, but this time they not only asked who was perceived as more authentic, but also whether there was a difference in terms of the participants' willingness to forgive a junior or a senior employee in exactly the same situation.
They presented the participants with a true case of a CEO who insulted the company's customers and then posted a video apology on YouTube.
Again, some of the participants were told that he was a senior employee and others thought that he was a junior worker. Once again, it was found that the CEO was perceived as less sincere and less deserving of forgiveness.
The researchers also found that in the case of the junior employee, the participants gave much more detailed explanations as to why the worker should be forgiven.