When "I'm Sorry" Isn't Enough

Asking for forgiveness isn't easy—but it always helps, right? Unfortunately, your apology may be worth less than you think. Learn to do it right.

The Science of Apologies -- Or Is It Child's Play?

The moral fables of Michael, Alex, and Chris

Let's see, teens observing the contrition of Michael Phelps, who has won 14 Olympic gold medals, will never (again) smoke marijuana. Young people will internalize how much Alex Rodriguez, baseball's highest-paid player, regrets using steroids en route to becoming the all-time major league home run king. And the example of teen idol Chris Brown's alleged assault on his girlfriend, pop star Rihanna, will certainly discourage other young men from such behavior.

I've seen claims made for all of the above, especially after the figure in question publicly apologizes, says he won't do it again, and warns others against doing what he did. Pretty soon, no young people - or professional athletes or entertainment figures - will ever misbehave again!

Well, that's one way things might go. Or others may simply ignore these various stars' examples and do whatever they were destined to do anyhow. Or, I guess, a third possibility is that these highly visible examples will prompt imitation on the proposition that if sports and entertainment stars do something, then it can't be so bad - maybe it's even good!

Charles Snow, writing in the Times, is optimistic about the good effects of Brown's arrest for beating his girlfriend. Since "it happened just days after Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Week had ended. . . ., perhaps it will . . . refocus. . . attention on the problem." But didn't the sponsors of Teen Dating Violence Week hope that teen violence (Brown is 19) would decline at least during the week following their well-intended campaign? My guess is that Brown was caught up in his own dynamics during the altercation, and didn't care about public education programs.

Brown hasn't surfaced with his apologies yet, which might make him too late, since Wrigley has already dropped him as a spokesperson for Doublemint gum. For his part, Phelps has apologized several times, successfully fending off Speedo and other defectors after Kellogg's dumped him (indeed, a backlash by Phelps' defenders has led to a boycott of Kellogg's products).

Rodriguez, who, unfortunately for him, in a 2007 interview with Katie Couric earnestly denied using performance-enhancing drugs, had to apologize twice over, once for using the drugs, once for lying to Katie: "I'm very sorry AND deeply regretful." C'mon, no joking now - he's really, really sorry. Look how sorry he was:

"When I arrived in Texas in 2001, I felt an enormous amount of pressure. I felt like I had all of the weight of the world on top of me. And I needed to perform, and perform at a high level every day."

"Back then, it was a different culture. It was very loose."

"I was young." (Rodriguez used from the ages of 25-27, after being in the major leagues for seven years.) "I was stupid." (He had already negotiated the highest salary in baseball.) "I was naïve." (Rodriguez, whose cheating ways led to his divorce, now dates Madonna. He counts among his friends and advisors Warren Buffett.)

(Kids, take a crayon and underline the self-exculpatory excuses.)

Phelps was also very, very sorry: "I promise my fans and the public - it will not happen again.'' Of course, a few years ago, Phelps was charged with drunk driving. Phelps' style of apologizing is to own up: "I made a mistake . . . . Getting into a car with anything to drink is wrong. It's dangerous and it's unacceptable. I'm 19, but [I] take responsibility for actions . . . I'm extremely sorry."

Let's compare that with his most recent performance: ``I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment. I'm 23 years old, and despite the successes I have had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner that people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry."

I don't know - fairly similar, don't you agree? Is there a science of apologizing, PT researchers and readers?  Okay, call me cynical. But when kids are caught, don't they say anything they think will enable them to escape punishment? Are adults any different?

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P.S. - Completing the cycle, Chris Brown finally (February 15th) came through with his apology.  The good news: he didn't mention his age.  The bad: Brown claimed accounts of the event were untrue, but then didn't explain exactly what he was apologizing about. “Words cannot begin to express how sorry and saddened I am over what transpired. I am seeking the counseling of my pastor, my mother and other loved ones and I am committed, with God’s help, to emerging a better person.”  Of course, Brown will have a hard time matching John Edwards' confession.  Nonetheless, duly impressed, Rihanna returned to Brown's side and refused to cooperate with prosecutors.

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When "I'm Sorry" Isn't Enough