Throughout the summer and into the fall, analysts have been shocked by the rise of Donald Trump in the Republican primary polls. After each one of his seeming gaffes, pundits have wondered whether the “laws of political gravity” will finally “catch up” to him. But rather than apologizing for his remarks, Trump has gone on the offensive, defended the original comments, and portrayed each firestorm as a fabricated controversy cooked up by “losers.”
The conventional wisdom says that once a politician says something controversial, the best way to mitigate the damage is to apologize. Trump, however, refuses to stick to the established script, whether the target is Megyn Kelly of Fox News, Latinos, or even Sen. John McCain’s war record. When asked when was the last time he apologized, Trump replied, “I have one of the great memories of all time, but I can’t remember.”
Here’s why Trump might be right not to apologize.
First, although apologies can help heal rifts in relationships between individuals, people may apply different standards to controversies involving public figures. Research shows that a person who backs down in a dispute becomes less likable to observers, who may want to punish that individual.
Second, overconfidence, even to the point of breaking rules, causes people to view an individual more positively, as does social risk-taking. In particular, males who show social dominance are judged more attractively as potential mates. An individual who does not back down in the face of controversy shows confidence by not giving in to social pressure, and takes a risk by refusing to follow the conventional path. Some on the right openly suggest that part of Trump’s appeal lies in his refusal to apologize and his unwillingness to be “politically correct.”
Here is where my research comes in. I recruited a sample of 511 individuals and had them read two texts. First, they read about Rand Paul’s 2011 comments suggesting that he disagreed with parts of the Civil Rights Act. Paul had said that while he denounced racist behavior, part of his definition of freedom meant the right to discriminate on private property. About half of the participants read a conclusion to the story that made Paul seem apologetic, while the rest were led to believe that he stuck firm to his comments. (In actuality, Paul never apologized for his statements, but began to deny that he ever questioned the Civil Rights Act.)
Respondents then read about the suggestion by then-Harvard President Larry Summers in 2005 that genetic factors help to explain the lack of high-performing female scientists and engineers at top universities. After reading the comments and hearing about the outcry, half the participants were told that Summers defended himself by saying he believed that “raising questions, discussing multiple factors that may explain a difficult problem, and seeking to understand how they interrelate is vitally important.” The rest learned that he had apologized and read a brief statement Summers made expressing regret for his comments and reflecting on the damage that they had caused.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, neither Summers nor Paul was helped by an apology. Among respondents who read that Paul was apologetic, 63 percent said that the controversy made them less likely to vote for Paul. Among those who didn’t read about any apology, 61 percent said they were less likely to vote for him — a statistically insignificant difference.
The results for the Summers controversy were even more surprising. Of those who read about his apology, 64 percent said that he “definitely” or “probably” should have faced negative consequences for his statements about women. However, that number dropped to 56 percent when respondents were led to believe that Summers stood firm in his position. Moreover, the surprisingly negative effect of Summers’ apology was even larger among the groups that arguably should have appreciated the apology: women and liberals.
Given these results, why would politicians apologize at all? It may be simply out of habit or because they are following a script that has for the most part gone unquestioned. To be sure, my experiments certainly don’t suggest that it is always inadvisable to apologize. Nor can my findings speak directly to Trump.
Nevertheless, my findings offer a cautionary tale to anyone who assumes that the best remedy for controversial statements is “I’m sorry.”
Richard Hanania is a PhD student in Political Science and a Master’s candidate in Statistics at UCLA.