Does Apologizing Work? An Empirical Test of the Conventional Wisdom
Behavioural Public Policy, DOI: 10.1017/bpp.2019.35 (Forthcoming).
19 Pages Posted: 8 Sep 2015 Last revised: 4 Nov 2019
Date Written: September 1, 2015
Politicians and other public figures often apologize after making controversial statements. While it is assumed that they are wise to do so, this proposition has yet to be tested empirically. There are reasons to believe that apologizing makes public figures appear weak and risk averse, which may make them less attractive as people and lead members of the public to want to punish them. This paper presents the results of an experiment where respondents were given two versions of two real-life controversies involving comments made by public figures. Approximately half of the participants read a story that made it appear as if the person had apologized, while the rest were led to believe that the individual stood firm. In the first experiment, involving Rand Paul and his comments on the Civil Rights Act, hearing that he was apologetic did not change whether respondents were less likely to vote for him. When presented with two versions of the controversy surrounding Larry Summers and his comments about women scientists and engineers, however, liberals and females were much more likely to say that he definitely or probably should have faced negative consequences for his statement when presented with his apology. The effects on other groups were smaller or neutral. Overall, the evidence suggests that when a prominent figure apologizes for a controversial statement, the public is either unaffected or becomes more likely to desire that the individual be punished.
Keywords: Political psychology, polling, evolutionary psychology, pundits, public opinion, Donal Trump, political science
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation