This blog is part of my Learnings from Human Experiments (LHE) series
The authors of an Oct 2019 paper in Behavioral Public Policy did a social experiment in which respondents (in USA) were given two versions of two real-life controversies involving public figures. Approximately half of the participants read a story that made it appear as if the person had apologized, while the rest were led to believe that the individual had stood firm.
In the first experiment, where the public figure was a politician, hearing that he had apologized for his comments on civil rights did not change whether respondents were less likely to vote for him. Essentially, had he not apologized, he would have done as well!
In the second experiment, when presented with two versions of the controversy surrounding Larry Summers and his comments about women scientists and engineers, liberals and females were more likely to say that he should have faced negative consequences for his statement when presented with his apology (the effects of the apology on groups other than liberals and women were smaller or neutral).
So net net, when a prominent figure apologizes for a controversial statement, public in general is either unaffected or becomes more likely to desire that the he/she be punished! If you are a public figure – don’t apologize; doesn’t work!