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.

freedom fighter

Yo Whomever This May Concern;

What is the point of an apology? if it were merely a matter of saving face, then it would not be an apology, would it?. e.g., when the guilty party knows they have done wrong even when it is in the other's best interest) and says so--that is the point of kindship. (no slip)

I leave the matter of the apology/reparations ....that our country owes for doing wrong in the interest of a few-----.

So- jonathan- you are right on target- knowing history and having a sense that things can be different makes-- a real difference. Profound- I will remember that.

From that standpoint, I wish that I could have trusted our enterprise system to work- sorry for that! I do now. And to my friend, Over And Out!

Scott Supak

Two words: George Bush...

I won't be holding my breath.

The one person on earth who should apologize, who has more to apologize for, and his answer? "I don't give a darn."

Would it make anything better (Brad)? Maybe not. You're probably right that the person making the apology has to understand what he did wrong, et al. GW probably honestly believes he didn't do anything wrong, and furthermore, thinks anyone who thinks he did is a jerk.

At the very least, he should apologize to his brother, who might have been president someday if it weren't for Dumbya.


"So- jonathan- you are right on target- knowing history and having a sense that things can be different makes– a real difference. Profound- I will remember that."#21

Ha, ha, ha,
In other nations every 5 year old child knows that.
Apparently, there are wiser nations.


"An apology is effective when the aggrieved party can be mollified."
To begin with, an apology has to be genuine, not manipulative, political, insincere.
Secondly, it depends on how serious the crime is.
When someone's entire family and larger community have been tortured and destroyed in the most horrible way, it's difficult to expect forgiveness. Actually, I don't think forgiveness is possible. I also think when those who spend their miserable lives on some couches complaining that they, sooo privileged, didn't receive from their mothers ... whatever ... demand that such a victim forgives monsters, they are no different from monsters.


@Brad, #11
Not exactly. The literature on medical legal disclosure of adverse events is thin. The VA study you likely refer to is under FEDERAL tort claims act. The incidence went UP, although the total payout went down. There are about 30 state statutes that require disclosure , but no protection. An apology is not admissible, but it is still discoverable.

cover girl

Dear anna;

I wish that I could agree with you. I was hunted down by my father at age 5 for crossing the street without permission. I forgave him in one sense. In other, he was never quite the same again to me. Be careful of not judging people too harshly before you know them or you (in your self rightousness) really are one of those you seem to view with such contempt.


Here in Canada, apologizing is what we both do if you bump into me. It's also what we both do if I bump into you.

It's funny because it's true!