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Does apologizing work? An empirical test of the conventional wisdom



Public figures often apologize after making controversial statements. There are reasons to believe, however, that apologizing makes public figures appear weak and risk averse, which may make them less likeable and lead members of the public to want to punish them. This paper presents the results of an experiment in which respondents were given two versions of two real-life controversies involving public figures. Approximately half of the participants read a story that made it appear as if the person had apologized, while the rest were led to believe that the individual had stood firm. In the first experiment, hearing that Rand Paul apologized for his comments on civil rights did not change whether respondents were less likely to vote for him. When presented with two versions of the controversy surrounding Larry Summers and his comments about women scientists and engineers, however, liberals and females were more likely to say that he should have faced negative consequences for his statement when presented with his apology. The effects on other groups were smaller or neutral. The evidence suggests that when a prominent figure apologizes for a controversial statement, individuals are either unaffected or become more likely to desire that the individual be punished.

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Corresponding author

*Correspondence to: Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University, 420 West 118th Street, New York, NY 10027, USA. Email:


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Does apologizing work? An empirical test of the conventional wisdom



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