Should Public Figures Apologize? Preliminary Evidence and Speculations

10 Pages Posted: 7 Aug 2019

See all articles by Cass R. Sunstein

Cass R. Sunstein

Harvard Law School; Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Date Written: August 2, 2019

Abstract

In the modern era, the statements and actions of public figures are scrutinized with great care, and it often emerges that they have said or done things that many people consider objectionable, hurtful, offensive, or despicable. A persistent question is whether public figures should apologize for those statements or actions. Suppose that an apology has a purely strategic motivation: helping a politician to be elected or reelected, helping an executive to keep his job, helping a nominee to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Empirical work presented here suggests that an apology might well turn out to be futile or even counterproductive. One reason is Bayesian; an apology produces updating that can be unfavorable to the apologizer (by, for example, resolving doubts about whether the apologizer actually said or did the objectionable thing, and about whether what the apologizer did was actually objectionable). Another reason is behavioral; an apology triggers the public’s attention, makes the public figure’s wrongdoing more salient, and can help define him or her. But many open questions remain about the reasons why apologies by public figures fail, and about the circumstances in which they might turn out to be effective.

Suggested Citation

Sunstein, Cass R., Should Public Figures Apologize? Preliminary Evidence and Speculations (August 2, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3431417 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3431417

Cass R. Sunstein (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts Ave
Areeda Hall 225
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-496-2291 (Phone)

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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