Uber Is Bad at Apologies, According to Science

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s apology isn’t going over well, and here’s why.

Nov 19 2014, 11:00am

​Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. Image: ​Dan Taylor/Heisenberg Media

Ah, the public apology: A social rite of a particularly tangy kind that can either taste oh-so-sweet or induce dry heaves of revulsion, depending on who it's coming from and how they say it.

In the case of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick's rambling 14-tweet pseudo-apology for company executive Emil Michael's suggestion that Uber hire a team of character assassins to dig up personal dirt on journalists who take aim at the company, it's a little bit of both.

On the one hand, watching a company so publicly self-destruct in such an insane manner is truly spectacular. A rambling non-apology that doesn't really address any of the issues the offending incident raised is just the icing on the cake.

On the other, the ever-mounting pile of dirty laundry currently airing at Uber HQ is legitimately vile and, at the very least, the targets of Michael's vitriol and the journalistic community writ large deserve a real apology.

Uber has since released a new privacy policy, which may help allay some concerns, but doubtfully will quell the uproar from journalists. A sincere apology would probably be good for Uber, too, if that ship hasn't already sunk beneath the roiling waves of a day's worth of internet fury. But this isn't just my opinion. This is science.

According to a recent study at the University of Bonn in Germany, apologies led to increased activity in the brain's left inferior frontal gyrus, left middle temporal gyrus, and left angular gyrus, of subjects. Previously, these regions have been associated with increased empathy, suggesting that empathy and receiving an apology are connected in the brain in some way. In all cases, forgiveness—indicated by increased activity in the right angular gyrus—was more likely to be detected after an apology.

An apology is given, the brain responds, and everything's golden. Right? Not exactly. As we know, there are apologies, and then there are "apologies." If empathy and apologies are connected in the brain—and it's important to note that the Bonn researchers' findings are extremely preliminary—then perhaps not every apology will trigger the appropriate empathic response.

People in the aforementioned study were far more likely to forgive after an apology than not, but feelings of forgiveness did take longer to process. Image: ​PLOS One

Based on the backlash that Kalanick's Twitter apology has received so far, it's fair to assume that his is being perceived as the latter, air-quote kind. So what did he do wrong? Behavioral social psychology may have some answers.

A 2004 study conducted at the University of Southern California, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, found that subjects responded well to an apology only if the apology was an admission of guilt and regret instead of a denial of the offending behaviour. The apology also had to address the issues at hand.

"Trust may be repaired more successfully if mistrusted parties identify, acknowledge, and assume some 'ownership' for the trust-destroying events that occurred," the authors wrote.

In short, the researchers found that people respond well to an apology if it is, in fact, a real apology, which Kalanick's wasn't.

Michael took aim at journalists critical of Uber's much-maligned business practices and the open misogyny of its executives at a dinner party last week, Buzzfeed News reported. Sarah Lacey, the editor-in-chief of Pando Daily, was singled out.

Lacey has often been critical of Uber and accused the company of fostering a sexist culture among its employees, noting that Kalanick himself jokingly refers to his company as "Boob-er" because he apparently gets laid by advertising that he runs a company with a business model built almost exclusively on tone-deaf bouts of idiocy.

To recap: a culture of sexism and bullying is documented in a company's ranks and exposed by a journalist who is a woman. An executive of said company responds by calling for a #Gamergate-style character assassination. Said company's CEO responds by saying, "[Michael's] duties here at Uber do not involve communications strategy or plans and are not representative in any way of the company approach."

Kalanick distanced himself and his company from Michael's toxic comments, which have been documented as endemic. Nowhere in the 14 tweets to the words did Kalanick display ownership of the issue—a key component of an apology, according to the USC study—or address questions like, will Michael face any consequences at all? Did Uber actually plan on doing this? Why are you guys always acting like such total dicks?

At the end of his Twitter rant, Kalanick rolled out an old platitude about how people can change. They may indeed, but they can also apologize.