Mitt Romney, it turns out, was a rather awful bully in high school.  In one incident, he pinned a kid down and forcibly cut off his hair.

But this, of course, was decades ago.  And as Steve Saideman notes, the statute of limitations we place on politicians tends to vary considerably on whether the offender shares our partisan stripes.  We hold our opponents accountable for actions far older than the ones we’ll hold our own candidate to account for.

So why is this a story?

Because bad apologies are sometimes worse than no apologies.  Here’s Steve, dissecting Romney’s apology:

“When asked about this story, [Romney] said this: “Back in high school, I did some dumb things and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that.”

I hate, hate, hate when people apologize half-heartedly by making it seem like the victim was over-sensitive…

My family apologizes too much for things that are not their fault.  I really just want my kid not to do x again, whether that x is spilling something, yelling at me, or whatever.  But she is a kid.  When she is a grownup, I certainly hope that she would worry not about whether someone is sensitive to offense and worry more about doing things that are objectively wrong.”

Amen!

There’s some interesting research on the effect that insincere apologies have on victims and on others.   In a series of experiments, Jane Risen (Chicago) and Tom Gilovich (Cornell) compared three types of responses to a transgression:  Apology, no apology… and a insincere, forced apology.  

They found that direct victims will accept even insincere apologies, largely because victims fear looking dislikable if they don’t accept the apology.  But folks other than the victim aren’t bound by these same concerns.  

Risen and Gilovich found that observers (like those of us not actually bullied by the teenaged Romney, but who have read his insincere apology) are actually made more vengeful by a bad apology than no apology at all.

When apologies are effective, it is because they take responsibility and demonstrate remorse.  If Romney had acknowledged the harm he had done, if he showed that he knew why his behaviour was so hurtful, if he showed capacity for empathy with his victims — well, you’d be a pretty petty partisan to hold a grudge for the idiocy of his teenaged years.  But with his mealymouthed non-apology, all he does is implicitly accuse the victim of being oversensitive, and demonstrate that he doesn’t fully understand the hurt he caused.

I suppose the message here is — for politicos and others — don’t apologize until you are ready to properly apologize.  There’s evidence that late apologies can be better than early ones, because victims feel that later apologies come after their perspective has been heard and understood by the offender.

So, apologize only once you’ve really sought to understand and empathize with the person or people you harmed.  Apologize only once you’ve stopped deluding yourself that you were somehow not responsible.  And apologize only once you’re willing to admit your mistakes with candor and apologize for them with sincerity.

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