How to Optimize Your Apology (Ep. 353)

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“Offender-driven” apologies are the least effective at earning forgiveness: it’s clear you aren’t sorry for eating the furniture; you’re just sorry you got caught. (Photo: st0l1/Flickr)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “How to Optimize Your Apology.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

You said, “I’m sorry,” but somehow you haven’t been forgiven. Why? Because you’re doing it wrong! A report from the front lines of apology science.

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

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John List is an economist at the University of Chicago.

John LIST: And I go out and run field experiments in the real world.

You’ve probably heard List on our show before. Here are some of the questions he’s tried to answer using field experiments:

LIST: Why do people discriminate against one another? Why do women earn less pay than men in labor markets? How do we convince people to work harder on the job? How do we convince people to pay their taxes on time?

Okay, so the following story took place in early 2017.

LIST: So picture this: I get in an Uber car to go give a keynote panel address at the American Economic Association meetings.

The A.E.A. meetings were in Chicago that year. Very convenient for John List. All he’s got to do is get from his house to the hotel where he’s giving his keynote.

LIST: So I get in the back of the car and it says I’m going to be there in 27 minutes. So I go into my own land of working on my slides, because of course I’m doing things at the last minute. I lose track of time. I look back up about 25 minutes later, and I’m back in front of my house.

DUBNER: Ohhh.

LIST: And I said, “Oh my god, what happened?” The driver said,“I got really confused, and the GPS switched, and we turned around and I thought that you changed the destination, so I went back.” So I told her immediately, “Turn around, go back.” I missed part of my panel.

If John List was just your average, run-of-the-mill Uber rider, the story might have ended there. But he wasn’t. Like a lot of academic economists, John List does some moonlighting. At the time, he held a rather interesting position:

LIST: I’m the chief economist at Uber.

And that night …

LIST: And that night I gave Travis Kalanick, who was the CEO of Uber and co-founder of Uber, a phone call.

And what did List say?

LIST: So what I told Travis was: “You know what is the worst part about getting a bad trip is: I never received an apology.”

For those of you who think that economists are immune to human emotion, that they don’t have feelings that can be hurt …

LIST: And I said to Travis, “That’s a real problem.”

… Well, you’re not necessarily wrong.

LIST: And he said, “Look, if you think it’s a problem, go ahead and solve it.”

It wasn’t that John List’s feelings were hurt by Uber’s non-apology. He actually saw it as a research opportunity.

LIST: I went back to my team at Uber and I said, “let’s calculate what an experience like mine actually does to future ridership.”

In other words, what are the economics of an apology, or a non-apology?

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Considering that Uber facilitates roughly 15 million rides a day, it shouldn’t be surprising that some of them will be bad, like John List’s ride was bad. So List and his economics team at Uber began to think: what would happen if Uber apologized in these cases? And what if these apologies could be wrapped in an experiment that would test the efficacy of apologies generally?

LIST: And where we started was, we have a chance here to give the scientific community the first large-scale field experiment that goes after deepening our understanding of the economics of apologies.

List is perhaps the most prominent economist in the realm of field experiments. He argues they’re much better than lab experiments in answering economic questions.

LIST: I think field experiments are alongside the most important approaches methodologically that we have to examine data.

So that he knew how to do. But concerning apologies per se …

LIST: So I said, “Well, I know nothing about the economics of apologies or how we should be doing things.” So what I did is I reached out to an academic expert named Ben Ho.

Ben HO: My name is Ben Ho. I’m an associate professor of economics at Vassar College.

Ho got interested in apologies during grad school.

HO: I was sort of fumbling around for a new idea, a question no one’s really asked before. And my roommate had a friend that kept on showing up late for their tennis dates. She’d apologize profusely, he would forgive her. And at some point, he got fed up. Right? And he basically said, “Ben, apologies are just empty words. Why do we even bother with them?” And I was inspired because at the time, one of the big debates in game theory is the relationship between sort of empty words — the formal term for this in economics is “cheap talk” — and sort of more costly ways to signal something.

Why is this idea interesting to an economist?

HO: I think the economy is really based on relationships, and relationships are based on trust, and trust depends on knowing who is trustworthy, that you want to interact with over and over again. Who is the most trustworthy person that I should be meeting for tennis dates? Or that I should have as an employee? Or whose restaurant I should go to. And so, when I’m trying to assess somebody’s trustworthiness, you know, different information signals come in that get me to re-evaluate how trustworthy they are. If they do a good job at showing up on time, then they’re more trustworthy. If they show up late, they’re less trustworthy. And an apology is something that sort of helps restore my trust in them by sort of signaling their trustworthiness to me.

In other words, an apology may represent something more concrete than mere guilt or embarrassment.

HO: And that’s how I started formulating the model of apologies.

Ho’s apology model makes a variety of predictions. For instance: apologies are more likely in longer relationships.

HO: The idea is that you could think of an apology as an investment. That basically if I’m never going to see this person again, then why should I go out of the way to restore this relationship? But if this is the beginning of a long relationship, then it does make sense for me to bring the relationship back into line.

The most important prediction of Ho’s model has to do with efficacy.

HO: The model argues that for an apology to be effective it has to be costly.

When economists like Ho talk about “cost,” they don’t mean it strictly in the financial sense. Although that is important.

HO: People like money.

But there are other types of cost you can incur. Consider what happens when you make what Ho calls a “status apology.”

HO: These are the ones where you basically admit your own incompetence and you beg for forgiveness by sort of making yourself look dumb.

For instance: “I’m sorry. What I did was completely idiotic.” If done sincerely, Ho says, this kind of apology can carry a real cost to your reputation. Another form of apology — a “commitment apology” — can be even more powerful.

HO: They’re a commitment to do better in the future. And so it’s basically saying, “Yes, I screwed up. But I recognize what I did was wrong. And in the future, you can hold me to a higher standard.”

But: Ho’s model shows that a commitment apology can also backfire. The logic is pretty simple: if you promise to improve, and then don’t, the apology is worth less than zero. You can see why Ben Ho was the person John List thought of as an apology expert.

LIST: So what Ben did is he formalized in a very natural way and a very common-sense way how we should think about apologies.

But Ho’s apology model was only a model. How would it stand up to empirical scrutiny? He did some lab experiments with undergraduates, and they produced some evidence backing the model. But he, like List, had come to be skeptical of many lab experiments.

HO: I think they are a good start for helping us identify a phenomenon. But what we really care about is what happens in the real world.

So he went looking for some real-world evidence about apologies. One idea came from his wife — who was then his girlfriend, and studying to be a doctor.

HO: And something that doctors worry about a lot is whether they should apologize after a mistake was made. And the reason they worry is that they’re scared of lawsuits.

So a doctor’s apology might be used against them in a malpractice suit. At the same time, there was evidence showing that a doctor was less likely to get sued if they did apologize.

HO: So people have identified what they call a vicious cycle, where doctors are afraid to apologize because they’re scared of getting sued. But the patients, the only reason they sue is perhaps because they never got an apology. To combat this, a lot of states started passing what are called “I’m sorry” laws. These are laws that basically say that if a doctor apologizes to a patient, that apology can’t be used in court against them.

Ho was curious to find out what happened to malpractice claims once doctors could apologize without fear of reprisal. He and the economist Elaine Liu tried to measure just how much an apology was worth.

HO: We found shockingly really big effects. We found that states that passed this law saw the speed of settlements increase by around 20 percent. We saw that for sort of moderate injuries, the final size of the settlements decreased by around $20,000. For sort of major injuries, which included quadriplegia and death, the size of the final settlements decreased by around $50,000 or $60,000.

This was compelling, but Ho had to admit the limits of the malpractice data.

HO: That’s not ideal, right? Because that wasn’t an experiment, these were very large-scale correlations at the state level. There could be a lot of confounding factors that we tried to control for, but maybe we didn’t do a good job.

For instance, maybe the “I’m sorry” laws influenced how doctors or patients behaved for different reasons; maybe they led to other hospital reforms, or changed the way malpractice lawyers advised their clients.

HO: You want a place with fine-grain data, and ideally experimental data. And I’ve been looking for that for years. So I started all of these plans to run experiments on Facebook or Twitter, where we could just sort of do apologies at scale, and I just never had the resources to do that. And so just out of the blue like last year, I got this phone call from John List.

LIST: “How are you doing, my friend?”

HO: And you see his name show up on your phone, and you’re just … Because John List is one of the founders of modern experimental economics. To get a call out of the blue was sort of an amazing experience. And he basically just said …

LIST: “Ben, here’s the problem that we have. What do we know scientifically, and what types of solutions can we propose and test using in a field experiment using Uber’s app?”

HO: They started conceiving of this project for apologies, and Ben Ho was the apology guy, that’s how I got involved.

Ho and List, along with two more economists — Basil Halperin and Ian Muir — began to devise an experiment that would a) test the theoretical predictions of Ho’s model; and b) figure out, more generally, whether and how a company should apologize to its customers.

HO: Yeah, the main goal for the experiment was to understand how best to repair relationships with customers.

John List had already looked at how costly a bad trip was for Uber.

LIST: We did a huge analysis of all all of those trips in the 5 percent worst kind of trips, and these tend to be trips where you’re delivered between 10 and 15 minutes late. And those types of trips end up costing us 5 to 10 percent in terms of revenues lost.

Meaning a customer who got a really bad trip would spend 5 to 10 percent less on future Uber trips.

LIST: That’s exactly right.

Now, in this new study, List and Ho wanted to see if perhaps an apology could lower that.

LIST: Sure. What we did, is we looked across all of the major markets in the U.S., across several cities.

HO: Over the months of the study, we basically accumulated 1.6 million riders. Like, to be able to do an experiment that involved 1.6 million people was sort of mind- blowing.

LIST: And when a person had a bad trip, what we did is within an hour after their bad trip we sent them an email, which included an apology and in some cases a promotion.

DUBNER: Promotion meaning a coupon?

LIST: Exactly. So we give people a $5 coupon, which is good for a future trip.

DUBNER: So one-and-a-half million riders, and you identify the really bad trips and then you send apologies. But I’m guessing there’s a variety of different treatment groups, treatment and control groups in here, yes? Can you break that down for us?

LIST: Exactly. So it sort of works as follows. You get a bad trip, and after you received that bad trip, we randomly put you in one of eight different groups. So given that we have one-and-a-half million people, we’re placing about 200,000 people in each of these eight different groups. And the eight different groups could be thought about as follows: You have a control group, which has a bad trip, and they never receive any word from Uber. That’s sort of my experience — when I got a bad trip, Uber never contacted me. That that’s sort of the status quo.

HO: And for the other groups, we just tested different kinds of apologies.

LIST: Something we call the basic apology was an email that said,“Oh no, your trip took longer than we estimated.” We juxtapose that against what we call a status apology, which goes as follows:“We know our estimate was off.” The third kind of apology is what we call a commitment apology, and that goes along the lines of: “We’re working hard to give you arrival times that you can count on.”

LIST: We cross all of those four groups — the no-apology group, and the three basic apology groups — with a customer promotion that says, “We’re giving you a $5 coupon for a future trip.”

DUBNER: So how does it work though — this is just a small detail, but I’m curious, how does it work for the control group that in the first of the four treatments, they’re not hearing from Uber at all. But then in the control group, of the ones who are getting the $5 coupon, they must be getting some kind of message there. Or is it just $5 credit shows up in their account, they barely even know it?

LIST: No, you’re exactly right, that’s a good point. So there’s just a statement that you are receiving a $5 promotional coupon. Now this is not unusual, because that is what we do all the time, we send passengers coupons. Now what’s important though is the timing of that. So these particular $5 coupons were coming in within an hour of the bad trip. So now we can explore how a $5 coupon right after a bad trip compares to a generic $5 coupon.

DUBNER: And then how far out from the bad ride do you measure each customer to see what their behavior looked like? In other words, whether they stopped using Uber or started using it less after a bad trip.

LIST: So after we send them the email, what we do is we track their consumption purchases and number of trips and how much they spend, for 84 days on the Uber platform.

DUBNER: Okay, so we understand the eight different groups. We understand how the communication would work. And then you’re going to measure the behavior of the people and you can identify which treatment group they were in. Is there anything else we need to know about the experiment before you tell us the findings?

LIST: Yeah, I think there’s one more twist of the experiment. Beyond the eight treatment cells that we had, that I would call the primary experiment, we also have — in the real world what happens is after you get a bad trip, it’s possible that you get another bad trip a week or two later. So what we did is we complemented the primary treatments with a set of secondary treatments, where, if you received two bad trips or three bad trips, we send an additional apology or an additional two apologies in the case of the third bad trip, because what we’re interested in is, if you have repeat apologies, can that actually backfire? Or perhaps it’s actually better for the firm to have multiple apologies.

DUBNER: Okay, so give me then a quick summary of the findings.

LIST: So the first data pattern that jumps out of our experiment is that you really have to squint hard to make the case that apologies by themselves work. It’s very difficult to find consistent and significant impacts of the apology alone on future spending or the number of trips that consumers take.

DUBNER: Does that suggest then that anyone who apologizes — individual or corporation or government or whatever — that just an apology alone in a modal setting is not worth the time? Or do you think there’s still value to it?

LIST: I still think there’s going to be value to it, but I think that what’s important here is that the firm needs to make sure that when they apologize, they take proper discretion in that the consumer understands that there was a true cost to that apology. I think the standard apology treatments that we had did not have a good element of, “You know what? That was costly for Uber to do it.”

DUBNER: What’s an example of a cost other than a cost paid back to the customer? In other words, yes, you can give $5 credit to that customer but is there a kind of cost, would it be a charitable donation? What can you show in an email that is a cost to you?

LIST: I think it could take many forms. As you mentioned, it could be a real dollar outlay to the person. It could be a real dollar outlay to a charitable organization. It could be that you signal to others an embarrassing moment. Now in many cases if it’s just an email, that’s a very private thing. But when we talk about apologies more generally, if you show some empathy and some embarrassment to a broad reach of people, it might not be a true dollar cost, but it’s a true reputational cost.

DUBNER: Okay, so the first big finding is that apologies in and of themselves are not a panacea. What’s the second big finding?

LIST: I think the second big finding is that if you use a $5 coupon or cold hard cash for a future trip, that actually can work to reverse some of the bad effects of a bad trip. Now to put it in perspective, a bad trip, the person spends 5 to 10 percent less on future trips over, say, an 84-day period. If you give them a $5 coupon, I can get an increase of 2 percent in net spending.

DUBNER: And how diminishing are those returns? In other words, what if you gave $20 and $100?

LIST: Great question. The only thing that we experimented on was a $5 coupon.

DUBNER: But I’m just curious, I’ll ask you to speculate now a little bit on a couple of fronts. Does your research have anything useful to teach if I’m not a multi-billion-dollar rideshare company? I mean, can this sort of finding translate into the personal sphere? I guess what I’m really asking is, John, since you guys write that money speaks louder than words, right? An apology with a $5 coupon does better than an apology without. Does this mean basically that if I’ve angered someone in my family, I should just slip a C-note under the pillow? Is that the way to do it.

LIST: And I could see you doing that, Stephen. That’s wonderful. No, I think the four broader lessons that I would take is first of all, apologies are not a panacea. Secondly, there will be most likely to have an impact when they are costly to the apologizer, and the apologizee understands that there’s a cost. That’s the second big lesson. The third lesson is that you should use them with proper discretion. And what I mean by that is don’t overuse them because of the next major result that we find in our data is that if you overuse apologies, they can actually backfire, and they can be worse for the firm rather than better.

HO: So the idea here is that an apology is basically like signing a contract. When I apologize I’m basically accepting being held to a higher standard relative to somebody that did not apologize. And we saw that by looking at what happened to people that received multiple apologies. Right, so for some subset of these people if their ride was late two times or three times, they received apologies over and over again. And what we found is that they actually punished the company more than customers that never got an apology at all.

There’s an interesting wrinkle to the Uber apology study. As it was underway, the company’s controversial founder and C.E.O., Travis Kalanick, was ousted by the board.

UBER AD: I’m Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s new CEO. It’s time to move in a new direction.

DUBNER: Uber the company quite famously has found itself apologizing for a lot of stuff over the past few years — mostly male executives behaving badly, but also what’s sometimes characterized as sort of thuggish corporate behavior, strong- arming. And they’ve issued a variety of corporate apologies. Have you examined their efficacy? And I’m curious whether this kind of micro-apology research has trickled up the corporate ladder into the macro apologies that the firm has done.

LIST: Yeah, I think it’s a great question. When you look at results like what we have, perhaps what we were finding is a general feature of the way people think about apologies. And those same sorts of insights then can make their way up. Because right now Uber is undergoing a reputational campaign. The new CEO, Dara, is out saying,“Uber has changed,” and,“We’re a new company,” and “We apologize for all of our misbehaviors in the past.” I think what we learned —

DUBNER: Is it working?

LIST: Well, the thing is we don’t have the counterfactual. So we don’t know what the world would have looked like absent Dara going out and apologizing. We didn’t do that as a way to test this macro type of approach. You could have though. You could have had Dara randomly doing radio spots and television spots, in different cities.

UBER AD: And you’ve got my word that we’re charting an even better road for Uber and for those that rely on us every day.

LIST: Unfortunately, Uber didn’t do that, so it’s impossible for anyone to unequivocally say,“This type of apology works, and this type doesn’t at that macro level.”

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The economist John List, by running a huge field experiment with Uber riders, learned a few things about apologies:

LIST: So I would say an apology to have impact needs to be costly and understood by the person who receives the apology that it’s costly. I think it needs to occur directly after the event happened. You cannot overuse them because then it is harder to entertain or show that the apology was costly.

So that’s interesting, and maybe useful. But it also represents a particular situation: when a company has disappointed its customer and makes what is essentially a private apology by e-mail or text. What’s known about public apologies, and their efficacy? It’d be nice to find someone who’s studied that too, don’t you think?

Karen CERULO: My name is Karen Cerulo.

Cerulo is on the faculty of Rutgers University.

CERULO: Yeah, I’m a cultural sociologist and one of my interests involves studying media messages: how does the content and the formatting of these messages influence their effectiveness?

Cerulo’s interest in apologies grew out of her research on how the media reports acts of violence.

CERULO: I was exploring how the crafting of a message can make audiences view violence as either heinous or justified. Public apologies presented a natural outgrowth of that work. After all, apologies are meant to persuade people in making judgments about what the offender did.

She partnered with another sociologist, Janet Ruane.

CERULO: We wanted to get a broad swath of apologies, so we analyzed apologies that occurred between October of 2000 and October of 2012.

They included only apologies where the full text was available, so they could be analyzed. And, furthermore …

CERULO: We wanted apologies that were highly visible, things that were covered by five or more distinct media outlets, so that we could look at people’s reactions to them and see whether the apologies were effective or not. So following those rules we gathered a sample of 183 apologies.

So these were apologies, by definition, made by prominent people or organizations. For instance:

CERULO: Chris Brown.

Chris BROWN: I felt it was time that you hear directly from me that I am sorry.

CERULO: The GOP official Marilyn Davenport

Marilyn DAVENPORT: I humbly apologize.

CERULO: Marion Jones, the Olympic athlete.

Marion JONES: I want to ask for your forgiveness for my actions.

CERULO: Kevin Rudd, the prime minister of Australia.

Kevin RUDD: We say sorry.

CERULO: We looked at some from companies too: CBS, Apple.

Cerulo and Ruane then analyzed the format and content of these apologies.

CERULO: Now by content, I mean what was mentioned. The victim, the offender, the act, what motivated the act, the context, the presence of remorse or some sort of offer for restitution. And by formatting, I mean how do people order do those things in their apology? What did they cover first, second, etc.? Because we believe those elements would make a real difference in the apology’s reception.

They categorized each apology using a standard typology tool that covers five strategies: denial, evasion, reduction, corrective action, and mortification. They also identified seven sequencing formats. Some apologies, for instance, start out by focusing on the offender; some on the victim; others on the context. Once they’d categorized each apology, the researchers then measured their seeming effectiveness:

CERULO: Every apology that we analyzed actually had poll data attached to it because the events were significant and visible enough that polls were done gauging people’s reactions.

Then they analyzed the data, controlling as best as they could for factors like age, gender, race, and so on.

CERULO: We wanted to make sure that it just wasn’t about who you were or who your victims were, but that there was something about the message you delivered, the apology itself, that was at work here.

Okay, so what’d they learn?

CERULO: It turned out that what you say first, and what you say last, goes a long way in whether or not people forgive you.

The beginning of an apology, Cerulo believes, is extra-important because …

CERULO: Well, the first thing you say is priming the audience. That is it’s pointing them, cognitively speaking, in a certain direction and it’s framing the action in a certain way.

And that’s why the most successful apologies in her research begin by focusing on the victim, or apologizee; not the apologizer.

CERULO: Where you would start out by talking about your victim, and talk very little about yourself or your own justifications, and end your apology by talking about how sorry you were. And if possible, stating that you’d make some restitution. Those types of apologies were the most effective.

Cerulo wasn’t surprised that successful apologies start with the victim and end with a sense of remorse.

CERULO: Because in some ways, those findings mirrored research I had done on violent messages. That if you want someone to feel that an act of violence is heinous rather than justifiable, you’ve got to bring them into the story via the victim.

But what did surprise her …

CERULO: Overall, we were surprised at how few people could make an effective apology. We really thought, given the kinds of people we were dealing with, that there would be agents and handlers and staff that would help in this regard. But really less than a third of the apologies that we looked at were effective with the public. One of the least effective types of apologies are what we call offender-driven. And these start out by the person talking about themselves and then giving all sorts of information about the context and the motivation of their apologies. That was one of the most common types of apologies. It was almost always ineffective.

In other words, the kind of apology where you say, “I’m sorry” but what you mean is: “I’m sorry I got caught doing the thing I did, and now I’m really sorry I have to embarrass myself by issuing this apology.”

Justin TIMBERLAKE: What occurred was unintentional, completely regrettable, and I apologize if you guys were offended.

So what is Cerulo’s general advice on how to give a successful apology?

CERULO: Number one: don’t wait. Forget your ego, forget the advice of your handlers. Unless you’re involved in a legal situation, where you’re advised not to speak, you should make an apology right away. Second, don’t apologize for what people thought. In other words, we’ve often heard people say, “I’m sorry that people misunderstood me; I’m sorry that people misinterpreted or misread my actions.” Apologize for what you did — not for what other people might have thought about it.

Third, don’t give context. We don’t care, Roseanne Barr, if you were on Ambien. We don’t care as in the case of Samantha Bee if you wanted to reclaim the “c word.” We don’t care, as in the case of Elon Musk, if you were mad at someone when you made an unfortunate comment. The why of what you did is less important to people than your regret and your remorse. And finally there’s really a successful formula that you need to use: identify your victim right up front, then express remorse, and, if it’s possible, make restitution. That’s it. That’s really what people want to hear in an apology.

Cerulo notes that one of the most famous apologies in recent memory — Bill Clinton’s apology for his White House sexcapades with Monica Lewinsky — started out as ineffective.

CERULO: The issue with the Bill Clinton apology is that, number one, it took so long for it to be made. It was made multiple times. What we notice when we look at Bill Clinton’s apologies is that they got better as he continued doing it. So, for example, the televised apology spent a little bit too much time talking about how people were victimizing him, and how a lot of the accusations made against him were political in nature.

Bill CLINTON: It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives and get on with our national life.

CERULO: By the time we got to the apologies that he was making at the National Prayer Service, for example, a lot of that material dropped out, and he began conforming more strictly to what we suggest is the most effective formula. Talking about his victims and talking about true remorse and wanting to change his behavior.

CLINTON: It is important to me that everybody who has been hurt know that the sorrow I feel is genuine.

HO: One of my favorite psychological experiments made these two videos of Bill Clinton.

That again is the apology economist Ben Ho.

HO: And in one video he looks really angry about the Monica Lewinsky thing. And, in another case, Bill Clinton looks apologetic for Monica Lewinsky. The people that saw apologetic Clinton, the apology worked. They liked him more. But the thing is that people that saw angry Clinton respected him more, right? There’s this tradeoff between being liked and being respected. So the other sort of major cost of an apology is it can make you look incompetent.

Now that’s an interesting wrinkle. Since prominent people are inherently quite competent — or at least considered to be — there may be a built-in disincentive to apologize. I asked John List if that’s why a certain uber-prominent person of the moment often doesn’t apologize.

DUBNER: The current president of United States, President Trump, has quite famously made a policy of not apologizing even when he’s made a simple, verifiable mistake or misstatement. And I would argue he’s hardly the only person in the world who takes this kind of zero tolerance for apology strategy. I’m curious what you think of that as a general strategy because of what you’ve been telling us is that apologies done poorly can backfire. And I’m guessing they can signal weakness and so on. So what do you think from a game-theoretical perspective, should more of us think about just never apologizing for anything?

LIST: Well first of all, some of us, it gives us satisfaction to show remorse and show that we care about the other person, so a lot of times when you apologize that it might be in part for selfish reasons. You just want to get it off your chest and do the right thing. Now you bring up something interesting with politicians. When I worked in the White House in the Bush-two administration, we did some things back then that I thought the White House would apologize for. And I worked at that time with a number of senators, when we talked about new environmental legislation. And when things leaked, I thought that there would be an apology. And what puzzled me was — an apology never actually came. And you’re exactly right. Trump is doing the exact same thing. Trump apologizes for nothing —even though it’s clear that in some cases he’s wrong. Now what I chalk that up to back then is: if you show weakness as a politician and you go on record making a mistake, guess what? Next November comes very soon. And that’s on every billboard that you made this dumb mistake. You’re an idiot. You’re a bad person. So I think in the political world, there’s actually a really good game-theoretic reason why we have really a very scant number of apologies. But I think it’s actually for a very rational purpose.

STEWART: If you’re going to apologize, go with the heart. Really mean it. People can tell when you’re faking it and when you’re not. So clearly at the end of the day, just be real.

That’s Quaishawn Stewart.

STEWART: I’m from Westchester — Yonkers, New York.

Stewart is 25. He’s an aspiring comedian who, earlier this year, was working for a delivery company in Brooklyn. On the street, he saw a young Orthodox Jewish boy — a Hasidic kid, with his hair cut with the long side curls known as peyes. And the kid was crying. Stewart pulled out his phone and started recording.

STEWART: I’d be crying if I looked like that too, bro. That’s up what they be doing to y’all.

STEWART: Well, basically, it was just a video of me joking on a Hasidic Jew’s kid. His haircut. Because you know how their haircut is different from most people’s.

Stewart uploaded his video to Facebook with a post that said: “Had to really let my son know how I felt about the whole Jewish haircut … pray for the lil’ homie.” He didn’t think too much about it, and he went back to his delivery work.

STEWART: I was doing two shifts at that job, so I would work all day. I had finished my first shift extremely early and I had enough time to watch Netflix and eat. As soon as I sat down to get comfortable and do all that, one of my friends wrote me, asked me if I was alright. And I’m like, “What do you mean, am I alright?” He was like, “Bro, your face is in the news.” I’m like, “What are you talking about?”

Someone had reposted Stewart’s video on Twitter.

STEWART: So I get on Twitter and I start seeing my video trending, and it’s not my page though. Some girl on Twitter, I don’t know who she is, she already got a million views. “I’m like, nah, this crazy.”

Once the video went viral on Twitter, it was picked up by media outlets.

STEWART: I thought it was funny at first and then I was like, “nah.”

PIX 11 MEDIA: It’s disturbing to watch.

NEWS 12 MEDIA: It all started with this video.

PIX 11 MEDIA: A young Hasidic Jewish boy is mocked and berated

NEWS 12 MEDIA: … for his haircut in a video that went viral.

PIX 11 MEDIA: The man who posted that video identified as Quaishawn James.

STEWART: I know at the end of the day my grandmother watches this. And then probably about 10 minutes later she was sending me a link of me in the news and I was like, “Yeah, this is getting out of hand.”

The video was widely condemned as anti-Semitic, “sickening,” and “dehumanizing.” Facebook took down the video on the grounds that it violated their policy against bullying. Twitter soon followed. As for Quaishawn Stewart: he says he intended the post to be a light-hearted joke, and that he’s not hateful or racist.

STEWART: I’m black, so then there’s a lot of people that tried to make it a race thing. That made it go even more viral.

He didn’t know what to do.

STEWART: I felt like I was taking too long to actually address the situation.

By this time, he wasn’t sure an apology would even accomplish anything.

STEWART: The day that they actually put me in the news is when I knew I was — it was already too late. I felt like I was already too late to apologize. So a day go by, probably two days go by and then it’s just constant DMs. Constant tweets. My phone keeps messing up. I keep seeing new articles of me with my picture in it, and I’m like “Nah, I got to do something.”

He decided to record his apology live, on Twitter. He did it in his car, as he was about to head into work.

STEWART: Good morning to those that’s watching this video right now.

STEWART: My heart just jumped. I didn’t know what to say really, like I was just so nervous.

STEWART: Alright, I just want to sincerely apologize to that young boy and his family. I never meant for anybody to get hurt or for this to be taken the wrong way. It was just a joke and I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry.

STEWART: I was just really trying to get people to understand where I was coming from.

STEWART: I don’t want this to be a race thing. I have nothing against Jewish people. I have friends that are Jewish. My babysitter growing up was Jewish. It’s nothing — I have nothing against Jewish people. Trust me, they done been through too much, too much. We’ve been through as much as they’ve been through. They’ve been through worse. I should have been more considerate and more open to other people’s feelings.

STEWART: That came from the heart. Everything I said I really meant that.

STEWART: That was just me being real immature. That right there is a form of bullying, and I’m truly sorry for that. That right there. I cannot take that back. I can’t. I can’t take it back. I’m truly sorry for what I have done. My actions are — oh my. I can’t even speak right now that’s how upset I am.

STEWART: I didn’t expect anybody to gravitate to my apology. I’m just apologizing for something that I did wrong.

But people did gravitate to Stewart’s apology.

STEWART: I look back, it was like 500,000 views — and I’m just like, “Whoa!” So I start reading the comments and I was just like “This is a lot.”

His apology was praised by leaders in the Hasidic community and well beyond.

Rabbi Alexander RAPAPORT: I’m humbled. I mean, I wish I could be so — if I could take back things that I did in such a humble way.

STEWART: And I didn’t expect none of that. So it was just shocking to me completely.

Stewart had a history of helping feed homeless people — buying the food himself, making sandwiches to give out. Just a few months before the offending video, he’d been featured in a local news story for his work. He said he’d grown up in a shelter and now wanted to give back. He brought this up now while he was tweeting back and forth with Jewish leaders.

STEWART: The Jewish community has a lot of soup kitchens in Brooklyn, and I’ve been aware of that when I was working out there. And I told them I feed the homeless; I have no problem coming out there to help y’all. I realize you have a lot of kitchens. So somebody seen that tweet, organizations started reaching out to me, So I went out there and I did the soup kitchen with them.

NEWS 12 MEDIA: Quaishawn Stewart of Westchester volunteering at Masbia, a kosher soup kitchen. A mission he says to show that he’s sorry for offending the Jewish community.

Historically, there’d been serious friction between the black and Hasidic communities in some New York neighborhoods. Stewart’s original video had threatened to ramp up that friction; in the end, it seems he helped deflate it.

STEWART: I definitely was enlightened of the whole Jewish situation, the Holocaust and everything. I’ve gained a whole bunch of knowledge since then in reference to that.

It’s hard to not be inspired, on some level, by the Quaishawn Stewart story. You could easily imagine how it might have gone the other way. But that, says Karen Cerulo of Rutgers, is the power of a legitimate apology. She gives Stewart’s apology much higher marks than most celebrity apologies.

CERULO: He starts out by centering our focus on the victim. He’s talking about the little boy. He’s talking about the family. And he is highlighting that he did something to offend these people. It’s a great start. The end of his apology is really a true expression of remorse. So good starting place, good ending place. That’s big.

If you want to hear a couple earlier episodes that are related to this one, check them out, in our archive — one’s called “That’s a Great Question,” the other is “What Do Medieval Nuns and Bo Jackson Have in Common?

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Greg Rosalsky. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Alvin Melathe, Harry Huggins, and Zack Lapinski. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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