Hidden Motives

A look at the hidden factors that really drive our social interactions

"I Misspoke"

Seeing the difference between a confession and remorse

Taking "Full Responsibility" - What Does It Actually Mean?

To say you "misspoke" is simply to state a fact. To be sure, it is better than a denial or an attempt at a cover up. But, when Richard Blumenthal, the Attorney General for the State of Connecticut, added that he took "full responsibility" for misrepresenting his military service, what did he actually add to his admission?

By itself, "misspoke" might have seemed glib, the verbal equivalent of a typo. Taking "responsibility" gives an impression of gravity - "full responsibility," even more so. But what does it amount to? No one else was involved? He was sober? He was aware it wasn't true?

As a psychologist I am constantly engaged in weighing the meaning and implications of what people say. This is particularly important in assessing feelings of guilt. I want to know how likely the person is to repeat the offense, how deeply they feel its wrongness. Are they mindful of the hurt it did to others? Are they truly remorseful?

None of that comes across in Blumenthal's statement. On the contrary it is reminiscent of the kinds of statements that bankers have been making recently about the credit crisis. Chuck Prince, for example, former chairman and CEO of Citigroup, testified before Congress that he was "sorry that the financial crisis has had such a devastating impact on our country." All the words suggestive of an apology are there, but he is not saying he's sorry for anything he actually did. Blumenthal obviously regrets "misspeaking," but has he questioned why he did it or tried to understand what was wrong about it?

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Frankly, it looks like, once caught, he wants us all to accept his admission of guilt and then drop the matter. Accepting "full responsibility" is a way of suggesting that the case can now be closed - and he can move on to rebuilding his career.

 

Ken Eisold is a psychoanalyst and organizational consultant whose book about the unconscious, What You Don't Know You Know, came out in January.

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