Larry Nassar and the Psychology of the Insincere Apology
The doctor’s apology been judged insincere. What is the psychology of apology?
By Dr Raj Persaud and Dr Peter Bruggen
Larry Nassar has been sentenced with up to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing young female gymnasts who were under his care.
Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina heard testimony from 160 victims before dismissing the former USA Olympics Gymnastics team doctor’s apology to the court.
His supposed act of contrition during the hearing included telling the victims, “I will carry your words with me for the rest of my days.” But Judge Aquilina found his statement insincere, reading aloud a previous letter he wrote to her claiming he was a good physician who had been manipulated into pleading guilty.
Serial sexual abusers who abuse positions of trust and authority to gain access to victims are deceitful, so remorse will be viewed with suspicion. Is this just another devious ploy to scheme their way out of trouble? Maybe a deeper explanation of how and why he exploited his position would have offered more possible closure to his victims? Were they left wondering why he picked on them?
A recent study entitled, “The soothing effects of forgiveness on victims’ and perpetrators’ blood pressure,” involving 68 married couples, investigated what happened when they discussed unresolved transgressions. Forgiveness and amends where measured, as well as participants’ blood pressure. Conciliation predicted not only lower victim blood pressure but also lower perpetrator blood pressure after the discussion.
The authors of the 2012 study — Peggy Hannon, Eli Finkel, Madoka Kumashiro and Caryl Rusbult — were inspired to conduct the research because of the widespread belief that relative to those who harbor grudges, individuals who forgive experience better psychological and physical well-being.
Perpetrator amends were defined in the study, published in the journal, Personal Relationships, as accepting responsibility for an act of betrayal, and offering genuine atonement for actions. In contrast to robust positive effects of victim conciliatory behavior, perpetrator conciliation failed to predict either partner’s blood pressure.
The authors, based at the University of Washington, Northwestern University, University of London, and Vrije University, the Netherlands, sought to explain this asymmetry between the power of victim conciliation, as opposed to the lack of effect of perpetrators trying to make amends. Their conclusion was that amends alone cannot positively resolve a transgression; there is no guarantee that the victim’s response will be positive, as Larry Nassar found, to his cost.
The authors conclude that perpetrators may increase their odds of receiving that forgiveness by making amends, but the power to grant forgiveness rests with victims.
This research was done with married couples who intended to stay together, so can these findings about the impact of apology really be applied to situations like the Nassar case?
The use of objective physiological measures, like blood pressure, to investigate subsequent perpetrator behaviour on victims, might suggest how victims are really impacted, could be much more complex than is currently realised. The real impact on victims of what happened in court in the Nassar case, may not be fully revealed just by how they behaved outwardly, and reacted emotionally.
Benjamin Ho and Elaine Liu have managed to calculate precisely how much an apology is worth in strict money terms, in the USA, and discovered that it is $32,000 (at 2011 prices when the study was done).
Their study, entitled, “What’s an Apology Worth? Decomposing the Effect of Apologies on Medical Malpractice Payments Using State Apology Laws,” points out that physicians often avoid admitting fault to avoid litigation, yet one main reason patients decide to sue is the lack of an apology. Programs that encourage apologies and disclosure have been shown to yield substantial savings in hospital litigation costs.
The authors, based at Vassar College and the University of Houston, took advantage of the propagation of “apology laws” implemented in 36 states. These laws state that apologies made by medical practitioners cannot be used as evidence in medical malpractice litigation. In states with such apology laws, cases are settled faster, and payouts for most severe medical injuries drops by 15-18 percent. These laws are intended to protect statements of apology made by physicians in order to increase the likelihood of their use.
Since apologies restore relationships, the authors expected apologies to be more valuable in fields where reputation matters more, such as in obstetrics, versus emergency medicine, and the pattern of their findings across medical specialties supported this expectation. The study, published in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, concludes that apologies have substantial value, alleviating patients’ demands for restitution.
So, what went so wrong with Nassar’s apology, given this evidence that in many cases a physician’s apology appears to have a significant impact on the patient? Was it something to do with the particular vulnerability of his victims, and their needs for trust, which he used his position as a physician to exploit?
Frank Fincham based at Florida State University published a paper in 2000 entitled, “The kiss of the porcupines: From attributing responsibility to forgiving,” which argued that the human condition is a bit like two porcupines kissing: The way we invariably dig into each other means that forgiveness and apology are central to key relationships.
Fincham asks us to imagine two porcupines huddled together in the cold of an Alaskan winter’s night, each providing life-sustaining warmth to the other. As the porcupines draw closer together the painful prick from the other’s quills repels them. But then the need for warmth attracts them together again.
This “kiss of the porcupines” is a metaphor for the human condition; humans harm each other and yet we are also social animals. The paper, published in the academic journal, Personal Relationships, explains that the ‘kiss of the porcupines’ is about how to relate with others in the face of the inevitable hazards of being harmed.
Fincham points out that in close relationships we voluntarily make ourselves most defenceless. Rendering ourselves vulnerable is a double-edged sword. It makes possible the profound sense of security that can be experienced in close relationships. At the same time, the flaws of any partner mean that hurt or injury is inevitable. The wound is particularly distressing precisely because we have emotionally exposed ourselves.
Perhaps Nassar should have more clearly acknowledged the sense of vulnerability in his victims, and their trust in him, which he exploited. But one particular study suggests that he was in fact wasting his time all along with his particular apology strategy. Entitled, “The effects of attributions of intent and apology on forgiveness: When saying sorry may not help the story,” this research found that when offenders intentionally committed wrongdoing, forgiveness was less likely following an apology. However, when offenses were unintentional, forgiveness was more likely following an apology.
The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found apologies appear to ironically hinder forgiveness even further if the perpetrator clearly intended to commit the crime. The authors based at York University and Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada, found that if a transgressor desires forgiveness, it’s basically ineffective to apologize following intentional transgressions.
The authors — Ward Struthers, Judy Eaton, Alexander Santelli, Melissa Uchiyama and Nicole Shirvani — argued that transgressors often apologize to make themselves feel better and to improve their victims’ impression of them; however, there is another very good reason to apologize, which was a key purpose possibly beyond Larry Nassar’s imagination: A perpetrator may also apologize to help the victim feel better about themselves.
If this can be the result of apologizing following intentional offenses, then apologizing can be helpful, even if it does not lead to forgiveness.
Dr Raj Persaud and Dr Peter Bruggen are joint podcast editors for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now have a free app on iTunes and google play store entitled ‘Raj Persaud in conversation’, which includes a lot of free information on the latest research findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world. Download it free from these links
The effects of attributions of intent and apology on forgiveness: When saying sorry may not help the story. C. Ward Struthers, Judy Eaton, Alexander G. Santelli, Melissa Uchiyama, Nicole Shirvani. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44 (2008) 983–992.
What’s an Apology Worth – Decomposing the Effect of Apologies on Medical Malpractice Payments Using State Apology Laws, Benjamin Ho; Elaine Liu. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies. 179 (2011), 179-199
The kiss of the porcupines: From attributing responsibility to forgiving FRANK D. FINCHAM. Personal Relationships, 7 (2000), 1-23.