No Cheney Apology Due: Whittington Already Did It

Study says victims see no difference between coerced and genuine apologies.

October 14, 2010, 4:43 PM

Oct. 15, 2010— -- In Dick Cheney's book, love -- or friendship, for that matter -- means never having to say you're sorry. Harry Whittington is still waiting for an apology after being shot by the 69-year-old former vice-president on a duck-hunting trip in 2006.

Whittington, an 82-year-old Texas lawyer, took 30 rounds of metal birdshot and landed in intensive care, where he had a mild heart attack and collapsed lung.

"Don't you remember his friend apologized for being in the way," said comedian Harry Shearer, who is the voice of multiple characters on television's "The Simpsons," and podcasts "Apology of the Weak" on NPR's "Le Show."

"A guy apologizes for being shot in the face? I think Dick is off the hook for that," he said. "There's only one apology per incident."

"It's one of the top five apologies of all time: 'Please do it again," said Shearer. "Hurt me some more, Dick.'"

Cheney's faux pas bucks the rising trend of public apologies.

Since 2007, traffic to websites like I' and has increased 66 percent -- 172 percent for the over-55 crowd like Cheney, according to AARP magazine.

"Everybody's sorry about something," says "Cheating on your significant other? Letting your dog poop on your neighbor's lawn? Cheating on your Algebra final?...You know you'll feel better after you get it off your chest."

In fact, one study shows that an apology -- no matter whether it's heartfelt or insincere -- is almost always accepted.

In a 2007 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the "wronged" don't distinguish between forced or spontaneous apologies.

Study author Jane L. Risen, now an associate professor of psychology at University of Chicago, calls it "insincerity blindness" that likely helps save a person's self-esteem.

Risen got the idea of the study after teaching 5th graders. "I was coercing students to apologize to each other and I was frequently surprised how successful it seemed to be."

Three dynamics are at play, according to Risen. It feels good, other people respond favorably to you and it's a "script we learn early on, to say, 'I'm sorry.'"

Outsiders Can Smell a Fake Apology a Mile Away

Why are friends more judgmental than those who are wronged?

"A victim often feels good to be magnanimous to forgive somebody," she said. "But if you are an observer and you see an insincere apology and accept it, you actually may be signaling that you are not being empathic enough to the victim."

Outsiders, rather than the "targets" of apologies, however, can smell a fake apology a mile away, according to the study.

"It's often easier for you to forgive someone who has hurt you than a someone who has hurt a friend," said Risen.

"For a long time apologies were considered problematic because you have to admit responsibility and liability," she said. "Doctors and hospitals were coached by lawyers, 'Don't apologize.' But recently, we've seen how much good an apology can do."

Here are some stellar public apologies of late. You be the judge if they are sincere.

David Arquette: "I am sorry and humbled" for "sharing too much" with radio host Howard Stern about the lack of sex with his wife of 11 years, Courteney Cox, and having sex with actress Jasmine Waltz.

JetBlue: "But most of all, we are deeply sorry...(for) the worst operational week in JetBlue's seven year history," said a statement from the airline after flight attendant Steven Slater grabbed a beer and slid down the slide to quit.

Tiger Woods: "I know I have bitterly disappointed all of you," he said after dozens of women confessed they had bedded the golf champion.

Pope Benedict XVI: "Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated," he said to Irish victims of sexual abuse.

David Letterman: "Inadvertently, I just wasn't thinking ahead," he said, confessing to multiple affairs with femle staffers.

Don Imus: "Sometimes we go too far, and sometimes we go way too far," for making racially charged and derogatory comments about black players on the Rutgers women's basketball team.

Bob McDonnell, Governor of Virginia: "The failure to include any reference to slavery was a mistake," after declaring April Confederate History Month.

Apologies -- genuine or not -- "acknowledge our humanness," according to Thomas D. Gilovich, chairman of the psychology department at Cornell University, who served as advisor to Risen's study.

"People want to be heard and given voices to their concerns," he said. "Procedural justice, knowing that my interests have been taken into account and dealt with in some way, is as important as distributive justice."

"Someone who won't apologize is almost denying your very existence," said Gilovich. "It's the same as ostracism. Why is it so punishing when people don't pay attention to you? We come unglued."

Cheney, he half-joked, "has a lot of sins to atone for."

Should Dick Cheney Apologize to Harry Whittington?

"Even when people are completely coerced, it does a lot of good," said Gilovich. "Having said that we are all very interested and have a stake in believing it's sincere and sometime we are fooled."

The most egregious apology is the non-apology, he said. "If you deny, deny and deny, it becomes a death of a thousand cuts. It's better to get it out there all in the beginning."

If that's so, how should Cheney apologize to Whittington?

"There's not a lot of research on that," said Gilovich. "I suspect that face to face is the most effective, where you have intimate physical contact. Even if there is an attempt to resist, there is a social burden to act in a way that's accepting."

Although Cheney and Whittington haven't seen each other in two years, Whittington says he doesn't hold any grudges.

He still calls Cheney, "a very capable and honorable man" and adds, "He's said some very kind things to me."

Though the public might view a Cheney apology as "coerced," researcher Risen said it's never too late.

"Because of the public cry for an apology, for most people it wouldn't mean very much," she said. "But my guess is it actually would mean something to Harry Whittington."

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