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Would it really ‘never hurt’ for Trump to apologize?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Trump glance at one another during their news conference at the White House in Washington on March 17. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
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At least two members of President Trump's own party have now suggested the president has some apologizing to do. Speaking with reporters on Friday, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), referring to Trump's claim that President Barack Obama tapped Trump's phone during the presidential election, said, “Frankly, unless you can produce some pretty compelling proof, then I think that President Obama is owed an apology.”

Also on Friday, Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.) said he agreed in a CNN interview. “I'm going to quote my father,” said Hurd, a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “It never hurts to say you're sorry. I think that goes for this situation. It goes for the situation with our British friends.”

The White House has been defending President Trump’s claim, without evidence, that former president Barack Obama ordered a wiretap on him in 2016. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

But is it really all upside, or could an apology hurt Trump more than it helps him? What does the research say about how leaders are viewed after they say they're sorry?

If history is any test, that question may never get an answer. As any casual observer of the 2016 campaign and the early days of the Trump presidency has noticed, Trump has little fondness for expressions of remorse. Controversies most politicians would have swiftly apologized for and tried to put behind them — a tweet with a six-pointed star, the birther controversy, to name just two — seem to get more attention from Trump rather than less, as he doubles down on his comments or deflects blame to others.

Yet becoming president has not changed that “incapacity to admit error,” as The Washington Post's Dan Balz has called it, a trait that's been on vivid display in recent days. Though there has been no evidence to support his claims that Obama tapped his phones — House Intelligence Committee leaders said Sunday new documents provided no proof, and the FBI director said Monday there is “no information” that supports it — Trump said last week he would be proved right. “I think you're going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks,” he said in an interview with Fox News's Tucker Carlson.

What will it take for the president to retract his tweets about Obama?

After his spokesman repeated an unsubstantiated claim made by a legal analyst on Fox News that Britain's main surveillance agency had spied on him, Trump and his representatives took pains to say they did not apologize. “I don't think we regret anything,” spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters Friday. When asked about the issue in a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Trump said, “We said nothing. All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn’t make an opinion on it.”

So would it really not “hurt” Trump to apologize, as Hurd suggests? The answer, at least when it comes to research by scholars, isn't totally clear. Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino said in an email that research finds that “apologizing is generally beneficial” for leaders, with even superfluous, unnecessary apologies leading to greater trust. But there are potential downsides, too, particularly if the apology isn't done well, if the leaders weren't seen as trustworthy beforehand, or if they're seen as backing down from a dispute.

Let's start with what Trump could gain. For Trump and his supporters, his defiance would seem to be a sign of strength, with the assumption that apologizing is seen as a weakness. Yet as of 2006, little research had been done to test that widespread belief, wrote  three researchers from Queen's University in Canada and their co-authors. To test the idea, they put together a study that surveyed hockey coaches about apologies they'd received from the referees leading their games, as well as other lab experiments. Generally, those who apologized were seen as more “transformational,” or leaders who have the ability to inspire, motivate and challenge their followers — rather than as a sign of weakness.

Meanwhile, there are other potential upsides. Research has shown that apologizing is associated with better psychological well-being among a boss's employees — and for themselves. And in another study, chief executive officers who had appropriate expressions of sadness on their faces when they issued public apologies were viewed as more remorseful. Their customers tended to be more willing to do business with them in the future.

“They make you more likable,” said Gabrielle Adams, a professor at London Business School and Harvard University who co-authored the latter paper. “They mitigate blame and they restore a sense of justice.”

But for leaders, perceptions depend greatly on how well the apologies are delivered — and on the person who is giving it. Research has shown that how sincerely an apology is perceived is dependent on whether leaders were regarded as trustworthy and caring beforehand. For people who didn't think Trump was either of those things before, an apology probably won't have much effect.

Other research has shown that being overconfident and taking social risks — both of which describe Trump well — are seen positively. Writing in The Washington Post in late 2015, political science researcher Richard Hanania said that people, particularly men, who don't “back down in the face of controversy [show] confidence by not giving in to social pressure, and [take] a risk 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.’ ”

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Hanania's own research studied how people responded to controversial statements by two high-profile figures, one by Kentucky Rep. Rand Paul (R) in 2011 about the Civil Rights Act and another by Harvard President Larry Summers in 2005 about how the lack of high-performing women in science could be explained by genetics. Participants were shown either a response that included an apology (hypothetical or real) or one that did not. “Contrary to the conventional wisdom, neither Summers nor Paul was helped by an apology,” Hanania wrote, with more respondents saying they were less likely to vote for Paul after reading the apology researchers created for him.

For an apology to work, it has to include several elements, from an expression of regret and an explanation of what went wrong to an acknowledgment of responsibility, a statement of repentance, and a request for forgiveness, research has shown. That's why one of the few times Trump actually has expressed remorse — after audio emerged of him making lewd comments about women just before the election last year — the initial apology fell so flat.

Apology linguists dismissed Trump's initial statement that it was “locker room banter” and that “I apologize if anyone was offended” as a “non-apology,” one that deflected blame and attempted to normalize the behavior. (Trump issued a video the next day where he said he “was wrong, and I apologize” and “pledge[d] to be a better man.”)

Accepting blame or responsibility may be the hardest part of issuing an effective apology for leaders. For Trump, says Adams, doing so could also mean an admission of guilt. “My guess is he doesn't want to make that trade-off.”

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