Sorry-not-sorry: the science behind Boris Johnson’s non-apology

It doesn’t take specialist expertise to notice that when Boris Johnson apologised for attending a Downing Street garden party during lockdown, his apology sounded a lot like a “sorry, but…” – the excuses following so swiftly as to render hollow the initial apology. Even as the public continues to demand apologies from politicians, it has become so accustomed to evasive, weak non-apologies that you might begin to wonder what purpose the ritual serves. What can a “sorry” offer to those families who said goodbye to their dying loved ones over FaceTime while politicians partied on?

In his 2004 book On Apology, Aaron Lazare, a former professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, made an impassioned case for the public and private apology. When done right, an apology can bring about forgiveness and reconciliation, by restoring dignity and validation to wounded parties and offering them reparations and assurances. But bad apologies often make things worse. He argued that a good apology contains four features. First, acknowledgement: it must clearly acknowledge the offence and who has been offended. Second, explanation: it might try to mitigate the offence by showing it wasn’t personal or intentional, but these explanations must be honest. Third, it must include an expression of remorse, shame and humility. And finally, it must offer real or symbolic reparation.

Johnson’s apology failed, to varying degrees, at all four. He downplays the offence: “I should have recognised that even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance.” His attempt to provide various explanations is far from satisfactory: “No 10 is a big department, with the garden as an extension of that office.” His language is devoid of emotions suggesting remorse or shame: he apologises, but doesn’t actually say he feels sorry. He offers no reparation.

Some of these failings might be more important than others. A 2016 study by the Ohio State University ranked the most important features of an effective apology. The study, which involved participants rating the apology given by an employee who had submitted an incorrect tax return, found that the most important element of an effective apology was the acknowledgement of responsibility, followed by an offer of repair.

One shortcoming with this approach is that messing up a tax return is a relatively minor, impersonal mistake: will the same lessons apply to bigger, more painful harms? And does it matter what kind of relationship you have with the person apologising? Your cheating partner’s heartfelt apology and promise of change will be less powerful if it is the tenth time they have been faithless. So how much does a public figure’s image or prior standing influence how an apology will be received?

One ambitious study looked at public responses to 183 apologies by famous people – among them politicians, business leaders and cultural figures – to unpick the elements of success. (It gauged the success of an apology using polling data and internet discussions.) It found that a person’s public profile and the nature of their offence made a difference. Offenders with high social prestige or “iconic” status (Oprah Winfrey, George W Bush, Tiger Woods and Arnold Schwarzenegger were all classed by the researchers as iconic) were most likely to be forgiven. People were also more likely to be forgiven for offences where there was no single victim (such as for admissions of sexism or racism), and when there was no criminality or violence involved.

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But, once again, how the apology was phrased was also deemed hugely significant. The researchers developed a clever way of categorising the structure of apologies: the public are most likely to accept apologies that are victim-centred, they found. Such apologies focus on the harm done to the victims, and express remorse.

Johnson’s apology sounded at first like it might be “victim-centred”: “I know that millions of people across this country have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last 18 months,” he began. But then he switched scripts. The researchers would likely have classified his response as “context-driven”, one that is focused on the mitigating circumstances around the offence – and such a response is much less likely to mollify the public. Interestingly, it was seen as more important by the public that the offender focused on the victims than the expression of remorse for their actions: apparently people don’t care if you feel sorry if you won’t talk about the people you’ve harmed.

But of course, political apologies are rarely only about seeking forgiveness or reconciliation. They are also strategic moves. Edwin Battistella, the author of Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology (2014), argues that one reason we so rarely receive a fulsome public apology these days is because our politics is too fractured. It’s unusual for everyone to agree on the nature of the offence. Often when politicians are forced into an apology, they are performing a dance: apologise too much and you might only end up alienating your supporters. Donald Trump, for instance, perfected the art of using a non-apology to rile up his base.

Politically, it might be too early to tell if Johnson’s apology was fatally misjudged or just about enough to maintain his position. What is much clearer is that his victims – which, to a greater or lesser extent, is the rest of us – deserved more.

[See also: Boris Johnson’s non-apology takes the public for fools]

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