This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2014.
There are countless cases in the news where a public figure does something wrong, and we all collectively ask, “Why don’t they just apologize?” or “Why don’t they apologize the right way?” In the mean time I’ve often thought, “Why does anyone apologize ever? What is an apology aside from a collection of emotions with no rational analogue?”
An apology is a sort of script. Alice wrongs Bob. Bob demands an apology from Alice. Alice apologizes. Bob forgives Alice.
Alice refuses to apologize. Bob is angered and seeks other means to punish Alice. He could deny her trust, deny her social status, or even punish through legal means.
But what’s in it for Alice? What’s in it for Bob? As far as Alice is concerned, the outcome of apologizing is clearly better than that of refusing to apologize. As far as Bob is concerned, punishment may provide either a psychological or game-theoretic value–why should any of that change just because Alice arranges some words in a particular way?