Shifting identification: A theory of apologies and pseudo-apologies

Joshua M. Bentley published in 2015:


Apologies let offenders identify with victims and distance themselves from offenses.

Apologies let third parties identify with offenders but not with the offenses.

Pseudo-apologies let offenders distance themselves from their offenses and victims.

When third parties are at odds with victims, offenders may prefer pseudo-apologies.

Three case studies illustrate situations in which pseudo-apologies are effective.

* Based on an extensive literature review, Boyd (2011) identified four deflective strategies that may masquerade as apologies. Dissociation is the attempt to avoid responsibility for an offense. Diminution refers to downplaying the severity of an offense. Dispersion is a way of suggesting that others are also guilty of an offense. Finally, displacement means apologizing for the wrong offense.
Shepard (2009) suggested that simulated atonement resembles the rhetoric of atonement (Koesten & Rowland, 2004) but is insincere. In additional to apologizing, an offender may try to shift the blame or downplay the seriousness of an offense. Simulated atonement can be successful when an offense lacks salience for the audience or when situational factors make the audience more likely to support the offender.
Gruber (2011) noted that pseudo-apologies are often issued under public pressure when an offense receives news coverage. Involving the public creates complications that distract from the real issues surrounding an offense. Instead of just making amends to the victim, offenders must try to appease any number of other parties who have their own agendas.
In Gruber’s words, “it appears that the more the speaker is viewed as attending to the needs and/or interests of parties other than the offended party, the greater the detriment to his [sic] apology” (p. 102). Tavuchis (1991) also worried that the introduction of third parties “interferes with the normal unfolding of the process” (p. 51) and Kampf (2009) cautioned, “sometimes the main goal of indirect participants is to humiliate the wrongdoer” (p. 2259) rather that heal the rift between offender and victim.

Other reasons offenders issue pseudo-apologies instead of genuine apologies may include concerns aboutliability (Hearit, 2006), ego (Tavris & Aronson, 2007), or reluctance to give political ammunition to one’s opponents (Kampf, 2009). Indeed, Eisinger’s (2011) analysis of public apologies by members of the U.S. House and Senate found that politicians who issued denials or pseudo-apologies were more likely to be reelected that those who issued genuine apologies.

From an ethical standpoint, genuine apologies may be more desirable than pseudo-apologies. However, pseudo-apologies appear to be more effective at repairing one’s image in certain situations. The next section integrates the concepts of identification (Burke, 1969), cognitive balance (Heider, 1946), and co-orientation (Newcomb (1953) to explain this phenomenon.

* Balance theory helps explain how apologies work. When offenders commit offensive acts they become identified with those offenses automatically. Victims are naturally dissociated from the offense, and will therefore feel dissociated from the offender, as well. However, when offenders successfully dissociate themselves from their offenses through the rhetorical act of apologizing, victims can identify with offenders again. As discussed previously, this dissociation from the offensive act and identification with the victim may happen through changing attributions, creating empathy, or providing therapeutic effects, but the rhetorical act of apologizing is the symbolic ritual that triggers these processes.
If offensive acts are committed in public (or made public through the news media)these offenses often have ramifications beyond just the victims and the offenders. Customers, voters, audience members, or other third parties may also be offended by the acts of organizations or public figures. Coombs (2012) described these third parties as either potential victims (i.e., those who could have been hurt by an offensive act) or voyeurs (i.e., those who are merely watching to see how the offender responds). These third parties may seek dissociation from an offender to avoid being identified with the offensive act and/or because they identify with the victim. Boycotts and protests are examples of how third parties may dissociate themselves from organizations or pubic figures in order to dissociate from an offense and identify with a victim. Boycotts and protests are also used to pressure organizations into changing behavior (i.e., dissociating from an offense). Such activity is consistent with Newcomb’s (1953) prediction that one member of a relationship will often try to change another member’s orientation toward an object as a way of restoring symmetry or balance.
Apologies are a rhetorical tool for shifting identification away from offenses and toward victims or third parties. When public figures offer genuine apologies they dissociate themselves from their offenses and agree with victims and third parties that the offense was wrong. Balance theory suggests this agreement will produce a natural identification between offenders, victims, and third parties. In particular, this agreement allows third parties to identify with offenders without also being identified with the offense.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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