Why You Might Forgive Kathy Griffin: “My Bad” V. “I´m Sorry"

Sincere expressions of remorse authenticate celebrity public apology

Posted Jun 01, 2017

Most people have now viewed the gruesome image of Kathy Griffin holding what appeared to be the bloody, severed head of President Trump.  Even the description is hard to write, as the visual imagery was extremely disturbing, even for those of us who practice criminal law and routinely view real murder photos for a living.

Griffin was dropped by CNN, publicly reviled on social media, and will no doubt continue to suffer financial and reputational loss.  Yet while hard to believe at the moment, given the raw visceral reaction we are experiencing, research and history indicate that over time, many people will forgive Griffin.  

Forgiveness will occur not merely due to the passage of time, during which time other misbehaving celebrities will no doubt steal the spotlight, but due to the way in which Griffin approached her rush to remorse.  There is a big difference between “My bad” and “I´m sorry,” with the latter expressing more than regret over consequences, but guilt and shame over behavior.

The Art of Public Apology

As a fairly well known comedian, we analyze Griffin´s apology under the social rules that apply to public figures in the limelight.  Celebrities have been apologizing for years after engaging in bad behavior.  The public evaluates perceived authenticity through manner of communication, expressed emotion, and wording.  Live apologies, like Griffin´s videotaped mea culpa, are easier to analyze and process than cold, impersonal press releases.  Disembodied tweets, where the character limitation adds yet another layer of impersonality, will rarely carry the day, and are only effective in combination with other forms of expression.

Research has examined which celebrity apologies are more likely to be accepted, with some informative results. 

Celebrity Apologies as Public Persuasion

Public, as opposed to private apologies, contain an element of performance.[i] Many celebrities restore image through public apologies, which are both media events and persuasive messages.[ii]

Famous public apologies after falls from grace include President Bill Clinton´s four minute sixteen second prime time act of contrition, which according to a CNN/ USA Today/ Gallup Poll taken shortly afterwards, was considered to be adequate by 51 percent of respondents.[iii]  Less than a month later, a New York Times/ CBS News Poll found that approval of President Clinton´s performance had risen to 67 percent—which was up seven percent from the time period immediately before the apology.[iv]

Yet not every public figure fares well in the court of public opinion.  Celebrity figures who achieved forgiveness through public apology include David Letterman, Dan Rather, and Tiger Woods. [v]  The apologies of others, however, such as John Edwards and Chris Brown, were met with public resistance.[vi]

Researchers describe apologies as stories, which cover regret for failure, explanations for poor choices, and assurances that mistakes will not be repeated.[vii]  They also conclude that public forgiveness is not automatic, but rather, depends on apologetic message design, as well as identity and relational dynamics. [viii]

Essential Elements of Apology

Research by David P. Boyd examining the art of apology identifies seven component parts: revelation, recognition, responsiveness, responsibility, remorse, restitution, and reform.[ix] Boyd´s research analyzed apologies by well-known public figures including Alec Baldwin, Tiger Woods, and Mark Zuckerberg, to determine whether they conformed to the hypotheses proposed. [x]

The simple expression “I´m sorry” goes a long way toward damage control.[xi]  In addition, far from expressing weakness, apologizing actually promotes the perception of transformational leadership.[xii]

In a situation like Griffin´s, which resulted in significant social consequences, cursory apologies are insufficient. [xiii] Effective apologies convey respect to victims, often through displaying empathy by acknowledging the effect one´s behavior had on others.[xiv] This begs the question of whether Griffin will apologize directly to President Trump and his family, including his young son Barron who was reportedly traumatized by the image, which he thought was real.[xv]

Regarding the interplay of timing and trauma, Griffin´s quick apology is a double-edged sword.  Rapid apologies, while assisting in damage control, can deprive victims of an opportunity to express negative emotions, suggesting that apologies may have an optimal time frame.[xvi]  

Contrite or Contrived? Messaging Matters

With respect to an offender´s message, expressing remorse may be more effective than expressing regret because remorse implies an acceptance of guilt.[xvii] This is particularly important in Griffin´s case, given the planning and forethought that went into the offensive photo shoot and accompanying narrative.  Expressing remorse suggests that an offender accepts the wrongfulness of behavior and is less inclined to repeat the transgression.[xviii]  

In addition to remorse, effective apologies must also convey both humility and shame, because victims want to know that because of their wrongdoing, offenders are suffering.[xix]  The requirements of acceptable apology no doubt explain why transgressors often apologize in sequential fashion, adding additional layers of contrition and remorse to expressions of guilt, in order to rebuild public trust.

In the end, public apologies are helpful, but actions speak louder than words.  Time will tell whether Griffin will regain social standing and achieve the forgiveness she seeks.

About the author:

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, behavioral expert, and media commentator. She is the author of author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). 

She lectures around the world on behavioral profiling, sexual assault prevention, and other threat assessment related topics.  She is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. 

Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD


[i] Alice MacLachlan, ”´Trust Me, I´m Sorry´: The Paradox of Public Apology,” The Monist Vol. 98, No. 4 (October 2015): 441-456.

[ii] Karen A. Cerulo and Janet M. Ruane, “Apologies of the Rich and Famous: Cultural, Cognitive, and Social Explanations of Why We Care and Why We Forgive,” Social Psychology Quarterly Vol. 77, No. 2 (2014): 123-149 (125).

[iii]  Cerulo and Ruane, “Apologies of the Rich and Famous,” 124.

[iv]  Cerulo and Ruane, “Apologies of the Rich and Famous,” 124.

[v]  Cerulo and Ruane, “Apologies of the Rich and Famous,” 124.

[vi]  Cerulo and Ruane, “Apologies of the Rich and Famous,” 124.

[vii]  Cerulo and Ruane, “Apologies of the Rich and Famous,” 126.

[viii]  Cerulo and Ruane, “Apologies of the Rich and Famous,” 144.

[ix] David P. Boyd, ”Art and Artifice in Public Apologies,” Journal of Business Ethics Vol. 104 (2011): 299-309.

[x] Boyd, ”Art and Artifice in Public Apologies.”

[xi] Boyd, ”Art and Artifice in Public Apologies,” 299.

[xii] Boyd, ”Art and Artifice in Public Apologies,” 299.

[xiii] Boyd, ”Art and Artifice in Public Apologies,” 300.

[xiv] Boyd, ”Art and Artifice in Public Apologies,” 300.

[xv] http://www.tmz.com/2017/05/31/barron-trump-thought-donald-beheaded-image...

[xvi] Boyd, ”Art and Artifice in Public Apologies,” 300.

[xvii] Boyd, ”Art and Artifice in Public Apologies,” 300.

[xviii] Boyd, ”Art and Artifice in Public Apologies,” 300.

[xix] Boyd, ”Art and Artifice in Public Apologies,” 304.