- Research finds a massive increase in the number of public apologies.
- People conscious of the recent increase in public apologies perceive apologies as less sincere.
- At the same time, many in society are now more demanding of apologies.
Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher are facing serious backlash regarding the character letters they wrote for their former That ‘70s Show co-star Danny Masterson, who is facing 30 years to life in prison for two counts of rape.
Following the global rage surrounding the two actors’ letters, Kutcher posted a 58-second video on Instagram featuring him and Kunis apologizing for the pain that they may have caused survivors of sexual assault by vouching for Masterson. However, the backlash continues to ensue, with many members of the public refusing to accept their apology.
More and more in this day and age, we seem to scroll through public apology videos and statements from celebrities and influencers on our various social media timelines. A study published in 2015 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology explains how the dramatic increase in public apologies might be diminishing the effectiveness and promotion of forgiveness in them.
We’re Living in the “Age of Apology”
The 2015 study highlighted that the sharp rise in public apologies has ushered in what many are calling the “age of apology.” The researchers found that people who are conscious of the recent increase in public apologies perceived apologies as less sincere and were thus less forgiving of those making the apology. However, they also found those individuals to be more demanding of apologies.
It’s a Catch-22. Living in the age of apology, we expect political figures, influencers, and celebrities such as Kutcher and Kunis to apologize publicly after any wrongdoing. At the same time, the constant influx of public apologies from the people we expect to beg for forgiveness blunts the value and perceived sincerity of the apology itself.
The Psychology of Apologies and Why We Do (or Don’t) Forgive
A study published in Social Psychology Quarterly suggests the structure of apologies explains our readiness to forgive. In the study, researchers analyzed nearly 200 different celebrities’ public apologies in order to find patterns in their structure and content, including those from Chris Brown, Rosie O’Donnell, Bill Clinton, Marion Jones, Michael Phelps, and others. They found several different tactics that celebrities use to ask for forgiveness, and they found some to be more effective than others.
These tactics include:
- Reduction. A reductive apology tries to downplay the severity of the wrongdoing in question by feigning ignorance.
- Denial. Some might outright deny any wrongdoing by claiming it to be misunderstood or misinterpreted.
- Corrective action. This apology is accompanied by a promise to improve or redress the behavior that warranted it.
- Mortification. This is an explicit admission of guilt or shame regarding an act of wrongdoing, often followed up with an active request for forgiveness.
- Evasion. This refers to a tactic wherein there is an admission of wrongdoing without an explicit claim of responsibility. We can see this tactic play out in Kutcher and Kunis’ apology.
Kunis and Kutcher’s Apology and Why It Didn’t Hit the Mark
Kutcher starts the apology video by saying that they are “aware of the pain that has been caused by the character letters that [they] wrote on behalf of Danny Masterson.” This statement might have been strategically worded to place emphasis on the pain caused by the letters themselves rather than the couple. Here, we can see an admission of wrongdoing, but responsibility is evaded by emphasizing the letters as being problematic as opposed to their behavior.
Further on in the apology video, Kutcher mentions that “Danny’s family reached out to [them], and they asked [them] to write character letters to represent the person that [they] knew for 25 years.” Here, the couple reminds the public that the letters were not their own idea but rather the fulfillment of a request from Masterson’s family, further evading responsibility for letters and their impact.
The study found mortification—the unequivocal expression of shame, guilt, or remorse—to be the most effective apology style in gaining public forgiveness. When public apologies did not include an admission of remorse, the researchers found the public less willing to forgive. This may explain people’s dissatisfaction with Kunis and Kutcher’s apology, as it focused more on the letters themselves than expressing remorse for the pain that their actions may have caused.
Why Some Might Not Be Ready to Forgive Kunis and Kutcher
The fact that Kunis and Kutcher are on the verge of getting canceled by a large portion of their fanbase can be explained by a recent study on cancel culture and collective validation. The study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, showed that cancel culture can be particularly validating to people who have experienced harm or trauma in their lives.
Publicly “canceling” people who caused harm to a collective group resulted in the offended group experiencing feelings of both validation and empowerment, according to the research. Considering the hurt that Kunis and Kutcher admitted to causing survivors of sexual assault, it makes sense that these survivors aren’t ready to forgive them yet.
In the age of apology, we’ll likely be seeing a lot more apologies mirroring Kunis and Kutcher’s. However, this increase, coupled with celebrities’ tendency to evade responsibility for their wrongdoings, might be impacting the public’s likelihood to forgive them, along with giving less-than-perfect examples of what an apology looks and sounds like.