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Why Apologies From High-Profile People Sound Insincere

Apologies for transgressions by powerful people are typically perceived as false

Nearly every day we see examples of this: A high-profile person violates an accepted standard of conduct, or crosses the line into clear illegality. Then, when exposed or caught, he or she quickly and profusely apologizes. Most visible are the politicians, entertainers, corporate executives or others in the public eye. They’re quick to express “deep regret” or remorse for their misconduct. And they commit to becoming “better people,” ask forgiveness from whomever, and so on.

In most cases, no one really believes them. But is it just that many appear to be hypocrites with respect to the public image they’ve cultivated or the political stands they’ve taken? Certainly, that’s part of the reason. But some new research provides additional understanding why some people who apologize for transgressions often appear insincere in their expressions of remorse. And the findings mesh with what you probably sensed all along.

This international study from Israel, the US, and the Netherlands found that the greater the social status of the person who apologizes, the less sincere and authentic they will be perceived as being. According to one of the authors, Arik Cheshin, and described in this summary, “The high-status person is perceived as someone who can control their emotions more effectively and use them strategically, and accordingly they are perceived as less sincere. The more senior they are, the less authentic their emotions are perceived as being.”

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, consisted of a series of experiments with hundreds of participants, and is described in detail here. The upshot was that participants in the study were told about individuals who committed a transgression, and then apologized. Some were identified as CEOs, and others, as lower-level employees. The findings were that the emotions of those who were shown the CEOs were perceived as less sincere than the lower level employees.

The data of the study indicated a perception of the more powerful, higher-status person as someone is able to use emotions in strategic, self-serving ways. According to Cheshin, “The assumption is that the CEO has much more to lose, and accordingly has a stronger motivation to try to use their emotions to create empathy. Accordingly, the participants described them as less sincere.”

Cheshin added, “We examined this issue in the context of the business world, but we can certainly apply the conclusions to other spheres, such as politics. The more senior the politician, the more we are inclined to assume they are using emotions strategically… trying to achieve something, and we perceive them as less sincere in the same situation.”

When it comes to willingness to forgive the transgressions, another part of the study found that the CEOs perceived as less sincere were also seen as less deserving of forgiveness, following the apology. However, the participants were more inclined to forgive the lower-level employee’s transgressions.

Definitely food for thought. Especially the next time you hear a public figure apologize, and it strikes you as not highly believable!