What's the Point of an Apology?

In the last few years, institutions have been issuing more apologies, according to an Economist article.

And lately there have been calls for quite a few more (from institutions and individuals), including Wall Street to American citizens and Bernard Madoff to the people he allegedly swindled (rather than just his co-op neighbors).

But aside from emotional reparations, what’s the point of publicly saying you’re sorry?

According to Melissa Nobles, associate professor at M.I.T.’s Department of Political Science, apologies can have an impact because:

“Apology politics” turns on our competing views about group rights, political community, and moral obligation, and on our perceptions about why history matters at all.

Nobles is the author of the book The Politics of Official Apologies, and she specializes in the study of apologies.

Below, she answers our questions and analyzes five recent public apologies.


Do public apologies matter beyond emotional reparations?


Well, they can matter beyond emotion reparations if some form of material compensation and/or policy change accompanies them. The most common motivator on the part of a person or institution apologizing is often twofold: the first is to express regret and the second is to restore legitimacy.


Do you think that Americans will see an apology for the financial crisis? If so, who is most likely to issue it and what effect might such an apology have, if any?


I do not think that Americans will see an apology for the financial crisis. On the contrary, we have seen a lot of finger pointing and evasions of responsibility.

A first step in offering an apology is the acceptance of responsibility. So I think that the prospects for a meaningful, fully articulated apology from any of the major institutions will not be forthcoming. That said, there might be apologies, of varying force and clarity, from individuals. However, I suspect that the American people will judge these apologies unsatisfactory, precisely because they will seem out-of-scale to the enormity of the problem.


Which was the most effective apology in the last 10 years? Which was the least effective?


This is a difficult question, but I think that the most effective apologies have been those to indigenous peoples by the Canadian and Australian governments. Although the Australian apology was just given last year (February 2008), and the Canadian apology was given in two parts (1998 and 2008), both apologies have helped to significantly raise public knowledge and political concern about the social conditions and political aspirations of indigenous peoples. The least effective is more difficult to judge, mostly because there are many candidates. At a minimum, then, an ineffective apology is one that is equivocal in acknowledging and articulating the wrongdoing and in accepting responsibility for it.


For each of these recent apologies, can you tell me:

1) Was it successful?

2) What (if anything) did it accomplish, and whose interests were served?

Mattel’s apology for poison in its toys.

Mattel’s apology was effective in its articulation of the problem of poisoned toys and acceptance of responsibility. For Mattel, the effects were mostly positive because it showed that the corporation was taking immediate steps to correct the problem. For consumers, the apology provided some assurance that Mattel was reacting responsibly and could still be regarded as trustworthy. Mattel was strongly motivated by a desire to restore and maintain the enormous value of its corporate brand. Consumers expect safe and reliable toys from Mattel. Once that expectation is violated, Mattel risks losing its most valuable asset.

John Edwards’s apology for infidelity.

The success of Edwards’s apology is more difficult to judge, in part because the success rests crucially on whether his family, friends, and supporters accept it. At least as far as Edwards and his family are concerned, the apology’s effects were mostly good because it helped to quell public and tabloid speculation. In apologizing publicly, Edwards clearly sought to restore his personal reputation and political credibility.

Wachovia’s apology for its involvement in slavery.

The Wachovia apology acknowledged and accepted responsibility for two of the bank’s predecessors’ involvement in slavery, so it meets the basic requirement for a successful apology.

But, in this case, I think that the apology’s success is best measured by the internal investigation that prompted it. In order to participate in a housing redevelopment program on Chicago’s south side, the city government mandated that the bank investigate its past. The effect on the bank was mostly good, I think, because in addition to legal compliance, the bank may have experienced a boost in its reputation. It came “clean,” so to speak. For the Chicago City Council, this kind of disclosure was a desired outcome of the legislation. The bank was motivated by legal compliance. The sponsoring council people were presumably motivated to expose historical wrongdoing. This type of disclosure law has been used in the past to expose ties of companies to apartheid in South Africa and to the Holocaust.

Pope Benedict’s apology for sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

Judging from press reports, the Pope’s apology was not successful because many, and victims especially, thought it too ambiguous. The Pope’s expression of “deep shame” did not fully acknowledge and accept the Catholic Church’s responsibility in permitting such abuse.

Not surprisingly, then, the apology’s effects have been mixed. The Pope undoubtedly chose his words carefully, so the ambiguity is by design, not accident. As a result, for victims, other Catholics, and societies at large, the apology has been interpreted differently and viewed more or less favorably. The Pope was called to respond to profound moral failings, both by his own moral sensibilities and, as importantly, by victim groups and press exposure.

The House’s apology for slavery.

This apology appears to meet the minimum requirements of an effective apology in that it acknowledges and describes the wrongdoing of slavery and “Jim Crow” segregation. The apology also accepts the government’s responsibility in legalizing slavery.

However, if our standards for a successful apology go beyond the minimum, we might expect that there be more public discussion about the apology itself and the historical circumstances that prompted it, if not some form of material reparation.

Although there were detractors to the House’s apology, I think the effect was mostly good, insofar that an apology is now part of the Congressional record.

Not surprisingly, there are different motivations for the legislators who sponsored the resolution. However, it is safe to say that the sponsors thought it the right thing to do. They were guided, in some measure, by moral motivation, in addition to electoral considerations.

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  1. Bobby G says:

    What’s the point of an apology? Easy: saving face.

    When you apologize half of the point is admitting you’ve made a mistake with the assumption that you have learned from your mistake and you will take measures not to duplicate it. In business this can be a way to try to save someone’s career. In personal affairs this can be a way to save relationships.

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  2. Christopher says:

    The next point to analyze along these lines is: what’s the point of an apology without change in behavior or actions? A person or entity can apologize for any action or behavior, but if they continue to perform the wrongdoing, the point is moot. Part of many apologies, especially those in the public eye, often incorporate promises to correct the problem and not commit the act in the future. If this promise is not kept or at the very least attempted, apologies are virtually null.

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  3. jonathan says:

    I feel the concept of apology works best when it:

    a) speaks to history, and
    b) reflects an awareness of how the present is and can be different.

    I can give a good example of an apology not made that might have done some good: the historic relation of Britain to Ireland. Hundreds of years of oppression, followed by civil war and partition. Why not talk about the history, discuss how Ireland’s physical closeness to Britain turned it into a different form of colony, and then note how that is the past and here are the present issues. If that had been said and then the focus put on acknowledging and ending discrimination in the North, the IRA would have had less to stand against.

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  4. PsiCop says:

    The purpose of an apology by a public person, group, or company, is usually to restore standing. In a lot of cases the barrier to be jumped is relatively small; it doesn’t take much to accomplish this goal.

    Hence, the ever-more-frequent phenomenon of the “non-apology apology,” in which the person/company admits something went wrong (e.g. “mistakes were made”) but refuses to accept responsibility for it beyond the fact that the wrongdoing had been revealed and that people were disappointed because of it (“I regret causing pain”). These non-confessions may be accompanied by a veneer of emotional or sentimentality, but it’s just an act — there is nothing sincere about a non-apology apology.

    Generally this happens because most Americans are easily duped by sentimentality and vague expressions of regret … they confuse it with genuine remorse. Until they stop doing so, the non-apology apology will likely become even more commonplace than it already is.

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  5. frankenduf says:

    my new favorite is “I take full responsibility for…” where the responsibility amounts to nothing- to me, “full responsibilty” means throwing yourself at the mercy of a social judgement, not immediately reassuming prior authority

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  6. Paul says:

    An apology is much more pertinent if it relates to something that you did e.g., Edwards or had at least possible knowledge of e.g., Pople Benedict, Mattel.

    It is much easier, but less meaningful to apologize for something that happened over a hundred years ago. While some of the members of the House of Representatives may well have had ancestors that owned slaves, clearly no current members did. An apology for more recent mistreatment of African Ameicans would have been much more appropriate.

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  7. Marc Resnick says:

    Studies such as the ultimatum game show that people are willing to penalize themselves (give up money) in order to punish those who wronged them.

    Apologies only work insomuch as they decrease this desire for revenge. The apology works if the wronged party perceives that the apologizer has received sufficient punishment. Mattel’s apology worked because they took steps (at their own expense) to rectify the situation. Congress’ apology worked in part because we see them as being addicted to their public image, so a public comeuppance is meaningful.

    For public apologies, the public is not always the one directly wronged (i.e. John Edwards apology), but still the apology should match the crime. It cost the Pope nothing to make his apology, so it meant little.

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  8. Ben says:

    I think public apologies are pointless and stupid, people that care about them are stupid, people that give them are stupid. All it is is words.

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