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A few days ago I wrote about the ways in which we are punishing people before they commit a crime. More specifically, I spoke about sociopaths and the way the criminal justice system treats those diagnosed as a sociopath. For those of you who didn’t read it, the gist is: not well. If you committed a crime (or are on trial for a crime) and a psychopathy checklist suggests you have sociopathic traits then you are–for lack of a more professional word–screwed.

The legal system views a sociopath as someone who will likely re-offend. Why? Well, there seem to be two main facets of the sociopath’s personality that lead to this conclusion: lack of empathy and lack of remorse.

I have already written a bit on empathy, so today I want to focus on remorse. In a legal setting remorse is important. If you commit a crime and appear remorseful you are more likely to be shown leniency and be treated better than a person who does not show remorse. But why is remorse so important? More importantly, why is it so important that a person appear remorseful?

Appearance of remorse seems to be everything. We don’t seem to care if someone actually regrets the action, we want them to act like they regret it, we want them to feel guilty for doing what they did. It’s not enough for a person to honestly regret a behavior and apologize, we seem to want to see them in some sort of pain. To understand what I mean think about some publicized trial where a person was admitting guilt. Everyone focuses on how “pained” the perpetrator was. If the perpetrator seems to be adequately pained then we often think they deserve a lighter sentence. Those who don’t look pained by their actions, even if they say they regret them, tend to be judged more harshly.

This is true in personal situations too. When we fight with someone and they apologize we don’t tend to see the apology as “real” unless their voice portrays the “right” emotion. You can’t just say “I’m sorry I was a jerk” you have to say it with feeling, and you have to act like you are truly hurt thinking about your actions.

It seems like remorse is important because we were hurt by a person’s actions so we want that person to hurt in someway too. A person showing remorse – talking about how much they feel bad for what they did – makes us feel better because we can feel like they’re hurting too.

The question: is this is really important? In fact, isn’t it a little ridiculous? If your friend unintentionally does something that upsets you, isn’t the important thing that they realize what they did that upset you and try not to do it again? Whether or not they are upset too doesn’t necessarily have any effect on whether they will do it again.

What is important? That a person is upset by their own actions? Or that they realize they made a mistake and will try not to do it again?

Intellectually I believe the latter is more important, but I know that emotionally I am just as guilty of wanting a person to say I’m sorry “like they mean it,” which usually means like they feel bad for what they did. I feel like that shouldn’t really matter though. Isn’t the important thing whether or not they recognize their mistake and won’t do it again? You don’t have to feel guilty about an action and show remorse in order to realize it is something you shouldn’t do again.