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Apologies Accepted? It Depends on the Offense

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 25, 2006

When freedom fighters in India inspired by Mahatma Gandhi turned violent in a clash with police in 1922, the nonviolent leader took personal responsibility, called off nationwide protests and starved himself for five days in a penitential fast. Gandhi was nearly alone in thinking an apology of such magnitude was called for.

Nowadays, people offended by public leaders rarely feel that the apologies they receive are sufficient. In recent days, the Islamic world has rejected the pope's repeated apologies for quotations linking Islam with violence. In recent weeks, Democrats and many people of color have skeptically received the apologies of Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) for using the term "macaca" to describe a member of his opponent's staff. And Republicans have termed President Bill Clinton's apologies for the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal inadequate.

Apologies, which are supposed to come from the heart, have been turned into an art form. We now have advisers who craft apologies, commentators who analyze apologies and a distrustful public that weighs apologies for accuracy, completeness and sincerity. This has caused the phenomenon of the ratcheted apology, where public officials go from denial to groveling in a matter of weeks. Nearly everyone is upset by the end: Supporters of the officials feel that minor transgressions have been blown out of proportion for political gain, while those who are offended feel pacified rather than healed.

Experts say all this is merely an outgrowth of our natural predilections. Human beings seem hard-wired to trade in apologies, which lubricate the cogs of human relationships like engine grease.

Children as young as 3 seem able to understand that an apology can rebuild trust. By the time they are 8, children are rapidly learning the role of mitigating factors and the complex calculus by which we find a balance between the extent of a wrong and the extent of the apology needed to rectify it.

People seem to have an astonishing ability to keep track of who has done what to whom. A bump into someone merits an "excuse me." When another driver cuts us off on the road without a backward glance, we are furious; studies have shown that more florid apologies are needed to rectify such serious misdeeds.

A growing body of research has unearthed fascinating new insights into the nature of apologies. Contrary to the popular view that honesty is always the best policy when it comes to making amends for wrongdoing, experiments show that apologies for only certain kinds of offenses lead to a repair of trust.

The research speaks to a central paradox of the apology: People who apologize are confirming they did something wrong, and therefore should be trusted less. But the fact that they are coming clean means they should be trusted more.

Apologies can take confessors in either direction, said Peter Kim, an organizational psychologist at the University of Southern California who has studied which apologies increase trust and which ones do not. Much seems to depend not on the error, but on what is seen to be the motive behind it.

In a series of experiments, Kim and his colleagues found that when errors are presented as incompetence, apologies are accepted and trust can be restored. When an accountant makes an error in a calculation or a baseball player makes an error that loses a game, such lapses are not seen as deliberate. We tell ourselves that the accountant and the athlete can do better next time.

But when lapses are seen as intentional, an apology can become grounds for mistrust, because deep down we believe that deliberate wrongdoing reflects a flaw in character and that such flaws are permanent. We see the accountant who knowingly falsifies his numbers or the ballplayer who accepts a bribe as lacking in integrity. Although many people who do bad things can mend their ways, our brains seem programmed to see such people differently.

This is why public officials nowadays try to frame their lapses as incompetence -- and why their critics frame errors as matters of integrity. Both the pope and Allen, for instance, said they meant no offense; had they known how their comments would be perceived, they said, they would never have said such things.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was accused of sexual harassment on the eve of the 2003 California gubernatorial election, Kim said, the candidate successfully turned a concern over integrity into a question of incompetence: "He said, 'I had no idea. I thought we were just playing around. Had I realized [it was wrong], I would never have done it.' "

"He was claiming social ineptitude," Kim said.

Kim has also found that officials who come clean and apologize for deliberate wrongdoing are seen as no better than officials who deny such crimes but then recant when the allegations prove true. So if people are unhappy with the way public officials apologize, Kim argues, at least part of the problem lies with the public.

"If we want people who perform nefarious acts to apologize, we need to create the incentive to do that," he said. "But here we ask them for their apology, and they apologize, and then we hate them just as much."

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