For months on end beginning in late 2017, one could rarely check the news without reading about a high-profile public figure being accused of sexual misconduct. These stories, spurred by the #MeToo movement, often included details about how the accused had responded to the allegations against them. Some denied. Some refused to comment. Some apologized. People took notice of these responses. Reporters applauded some apologies for seeming heartfelt but tore apart many others for seeming worthless or insincere.

Apologies are important conflict resolution strategies. When it comes to our personal relationships, apologies are one of the most powerful tools we can use to promote reconciliation with the people we hurt. However, the benefits are less clear when it comes to apologies delivered on a public stage, such as those offered for historical injustices or corporate crises. These public apologies tend to elicit cynical reactions from their audiences, thus undermining their value. With my collaborator, Anna Dragotta, I wondered what factors influenced different reactions to public apologies for sexual misconduct.

In five studies, we tested how people react to public apologies for sexual misconduct and whether their reactions depend on what the accused said in their apology, the gender of the audience, and the severity of the misconduct allegations. Furthermore, because denials and “no comment” statements are also common responses to allegations of sexual misconduct, we tested how apologies compared to these types of statements in their ability to restore the accused person’s public image and support.

Using both real and fictitious public figures accused of sexual misconduct, we found three consistent patterns. First, what the accused men said in their statements indeed mattered, with higher quality apologies receiving more favorable reactions than lower quality apologies. High-quality apologies are more comprehensive, containing multiple elements that satisfy the psychological needs of the victim. For example, high-quality apologies tend to include elements such as remorse, acceptance of responsibility, acknowledgement of harm and information about how the accused will attempt to repair it, admission of wrongdoing, promise to behave better, explanation for the behavior, and request for forgiveness. High-quality apologies are also non-defensive in that they do not include self-protective strategies such as excuses, justifications, victim-blaming, minimizations, or denials. This finding regarding the importance of apology content is similar to what we find for other types of apologies, suggesting that apologizers can partially reduce perceptions of insincerity by offering a high-quality apology.

Second, although women’s and men’s reactions to high-quality apologies were very similar, women consistently reacted more negatively to denials and “no comment” statements than did men. This gender difference is due to many things, and research is needed to understand how emotions, motives, and prior experiences influence men’s and women’s reactions to various statements. However, in general, high-quality apologies receive more favorable reactions from a broader representation of the public.

Our third major finding was that apologies received less favorable reactions when they were offered for allegations of more serious sexual misconduct. Given the seriousness of most #MeToo accusations, public figures who apologized for their misconduct probably reaped limited benefits. Consistent with this possibility, even the highest quality apologies in our studies received ratings that indicated that people were somewhat dissatisfied with the response. That is, people rated them below the midpoint of the scale that we used to assess their attitudes toward the apology and the accused individual. This pattern resembles the more muted benefits of apologies that we see with other types of public apologies, which are less effective at promoting forgiveness compared to interpersonal apologies.

On the whole, high-quality apologies for sexual misconduct hold some value in the eyes of the public. However, our findings suggest that words alone cannot produce moral redemption in the context of severe offenses. Instead, high-quality apologies might simply signal the start of something far more important—a commitment to more substantive amends and personal change.

For Further Reading

Schumann, K., & Dragotta, A. (2020). Is moral redemption possible? The effectiveness of public apologies for sexual misconduct. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology90, 104002.

Hornsey, M. J., Wohl, M. J. A., Harris, E. A., Okimoto, T. G., Thai, M., & Wenzel, M. (2019). Embodied remorse: Physical displays of remorse increase positive responses to public apologies, but have negligible effects on forgiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Nigro, G., Ross, E., Binns, T., & Kurtz, C. (2019). Apologies in the# MeToo moment. Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

Schumann, K. (2014). An affirmed self and a better apology: The effect of self-affirmation on transgressors’ responses to victims. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 54, 89–96.

Karina Schumann is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh. She examines conflict resolution processes, with a focus on identifying and targeting the psychological factors that influence how transgressors and victims respond to each other, as well as the psychological and relational consequences of these responses.