Trump Never Apologizes, Biden Rarely Does and A Major Study Suggests They’re Right to Do It
In the age of cancel culture, everyone from politicians to celebrities is under threat of falling victim to a career-ending controversy. The social norm has long been to apologize, repent, and express a change of heart. But does this really help, or hurt?
Studies suggest the latter.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren apologized after claiming Native American heritage. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam apologized after his racist medical school yearbook photo was made public. Rep. Ilhan Omar apologized for anti-Semitic language she used on Twitter in February.
But in all of these instances, has anyone offended really forgiven or forgotten?
These expressions of contrition are a far cry from a method successfully employed by President Donald Trump. And as of late, some have seemed to take a page out of his playbook and try out intransigent stubbornness in the face of a public outcry.
Joe Biden almost never apologizes, even when he flip flops. He gave Anita Hill a non-apology but a “sorry about what happened to you.” He changed his views on the Hyde Amendment but said he made “no apologies” for his last position.
Biden refused to apologize — and even responded defiantly — for his comments about working with segregationist senators. He also didn’t apologize for opposing government-mandated busing in the debate last Thursday. He’s still held steady as the frontrunner in the polls of Democratic candidates.
Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte never apologized after he bodyslammed a reporter. Now he’s running for governor.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez doubled down when many were offended by her calling detention centers concentration camps. Quickly the conversation turned from her likening the border crisis to a mass genocide to the real semantics of the term, “concentration camp.”
A 2015 study now making the rounds on social media — “Does Apologizing Work? An Empirical Test of the Conventional Wisdom” — tested whether apologizing helps or hurts a public figure, and found that most of the time, it either has no effect or hurts their public image.
“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,” the study found. “Furthermore, social psychology literature suggests that under certain circumstances social risk-taking and the breaking of taboos can be perceived as attractive.”
The study surveyed respondents by giving them two different versions of two different real-life scenarios. Half of the respondents read a story which made it appear as if the figure apologized, and half read a story which made it seem like the figure doubled down on their comments.
In one scenario, respondents read a story about Rand Paul questioning aspects of the Civil Rights Act. He stirred up controversy when he said that private businesses should be allowed to discriminate on the basis of race. “What about freedom of speech? Should we limit speech from people we find abhorrent? Should we limit racists from speaking?”
Half of respondents then read a follow-up scenario in which Paul took an apologetic tone and backtracked, saying he would never repeal the Civil Rights Act. He bent over backwards to make up for his statements with minority outreach.
The other half of respondents read a follow-up in which Paul went on the offensive, claiming that those who criticized his statements were engaging in unfair political attacks. Both alternatives include some true facts.
Respondents were equally as likely to vote or not vote for Paul regardless of whether he apologized or not. Interestingly, females and liberals were less likely (around six percentage points less) to vote for Paul if he did apologize than if he didn’t. Only men and political moderates were ever so slightly (one percentage point) more likely to vote for him if he apologized.
In another scenario, Harvard President Larry Summers made comments which implied that males were more predisposed to be adept in STEM fields.
In the first variant, Summers was not apologetic, saying he believed “raising questions, discussing multiple factors that may explain a difficult problem, and seeking to understand how they interrelate is vitally important.”
In the second variant, Summers wrote an apology letter saying, “I deeply regret the impact of my comments and apologize for not having weighed them more carefully.”
Respondents were more likely to say Summers deserved to be reprimanded for the comments when they believed he apologized than when they believed he did not. Again, a significantly higher number (around 15 percentage points) of liberals and females said Summers deserves punishment if he did apologize than if he did not.
Anyone who wishes to make a lifelong career in politics is bound to excite the outrage culture through one scandal or another. Unapologetic bullheadedness — whether a noble response to controversy or not — seems to be the best form of damage control.
[Photo via Drew Angerer/Getty Images]
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