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How Effective Were the Semi-Apologies of Trump and Lochte?

Not very, according to recent research.

By Tom Jacobs


Ryan Lochte. (Photo: Matt Hazlett/Getty Images)

Two high-profile but vaguely worded apologies have dominated the news of late.

“Sometimes in the heat of debate, and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don’t choose the right words or you say the wrong thing. I have done that,” Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said during a campaign rally Thursday night. “And believe it or not, I regret it.”

“I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend,” swimmer and Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte said in a statement Friday morning, which addressed allegations he had covered up irresponsible behavior by falsely reporting he had been robbed in Rio. “I should have been much more responsible for how I handled myself.”

Will these carefully worded comments absolve these high-profile figures in the minds of the American public? A study published earlier this year suggests it’s unlikely, although Lochte might fare slightly better than Trump.

Writing in the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, Roy Lewicki, a professor at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, lists six elements of successful apologies:

  1. Expression of regret.
  2. Explanation of what went wrong.
  3. Acknowledgment of responsibility.
  4. Declaration of repentance.
  5. Offer of repair.
  6. Request for forgiveness.

“Apologies really do work, but you should make sure you hit as many of the six key components as possible,” Lewicki said when the study was released. If that’s not possible, he added, the study’s results suggest you should focus on numbers three and five.

“Our findings showed that the most important component is an acknowledgement of responsibility,” he said. “Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake.”

Lewicki added that the second most important factor is offering to fix the problems you caused. “One concern about apologies is that talk is cheap,” he noted. “But by saying, ‘I’ll fix what is wrong,’ you’re committing to take action to undo the damage.”

By those standards, Lochte’s statement only partially gets the job done. “I accept responsibility for my role in this happening, and have learned some valuable lessons,” Lochte wrote.

That’s a good start, but his explanation of what went wrong amounts to an attempt to justify his behavior.

“It’s traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country,” he wrote, as if someone forced him to spend the entire night partying, “and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave.”

“But regardless of the behavior of anyone else that night,” he added, “I should have been much more responsible in how I handled myself.”

So he offers an expression of regret, but his acknowledgment of responsibility is weakened by his self-serving explanation of what occurred. In addition, his insistence that “there has already been too much said” about the incident is a clear attempt to minimize it. And, crucially, there is no offer to repair the damage he has caused.

“Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake.”

Nevertheless, he fared better than Trump, who did not accept responsibility for the dishonest way he has lashed out at so many groups and individuals. All he could bring himself to say was, “I do regret it, particularly where it may have caused personal pain.”

First of all, Trump gets points taken off for smiling as he made the remarks. Whether it is intentional or not, his smile comes across as a smirk, which suggests one shouldn’t take what he is saying too seriously. (One could also interpret his demeanor as suggesting he only regrets it because it has lowered his standing in the polls.)

Trump then continued in the same vain as Lochte, insisting that we’ve all paid far too much attention to his unfortunate statements, and need to move on.

“Too much is at stake for us to be consumed with these issues,” he said. As with Lochte, his attempt to minimize the importance of his unspecified transgressions makes his apology seem less than sincere.

To return to Lewicki’s list, Trump only hit the first of his six elements, and did not address the two most important ones: He did not acknowledge responsibility, and made no offer to repair the damage he has done. In addition, he made no attempt to explain what went wrong, and did not request forgiveness.

So, on a scale of one to six, Lochte scores a two (to be generous), and Trump a one. In the apology Olympics, neither is in a position to medal.