Martin Luther King, Jr. & Eliot Spitzer: On letting people off the hook [Part II]:
Effron & Monin’s work on ambiguous and blatant transgressions has multiple applications for our work. In the past, we’ve blogged about Tiger Woods, Eliot Spitzer, and David Letterman. We want to take some time to discuss Effron & Monin’s work in the context of our prior writing on high profile falls from grace. (See Part 1 of this post from earlier this week here.)
Contrast between public and private persona:
When it comes to Tiger Woods—the contrast between his public persona and his private behavior was jarring. Observers felt tricked, betrayed, and sympathetic to his wife as more and more women came forward as “Tiger’s women”. Contrasted with Charlie Sheen from whom bad behavior is expected, Tiger broke our collective heart. Even though he had not done prior “good works” related to sexual morality (to use Effron & Monin’s phrase), he had presented himself as something he was not—so he was perceived as a hypocrite. He got no pass from the general public.
The same would apply to Eliot Spitzer. While Martin Luther King, Jr. had affairs, his moral reputation was not related to sexual conduct. Eliot Spitzer paid for a high-priced call girl who would have sex with him for money. Whether Eliot used prostitutes because his self-esteem was too low to seek out ‘free’ sex or he simply needed to have control in any sexual relationship is an issue for another blog post (on another sort of blog). The point is, hypocrisy comes in many forms but we know it when we see it. And we don’t like it. In this case, his prosecution of prostitutes and their customers became a ‘takes one to know one’ example, and creeped people out.
Getting out in front of the situation
David Letterman’s apology was pretty impressive. He was direct, self-deprecating, honest and did not flinch from revealing truths that made him look bad. And then he never talked publicly about it again, apart from subtle self-mockery. And being an entertainer, we are willing to view some kinds of transgressions as being part of show biz. In contrast, Eliot Spitzer’s apology was widely seen as clumsy, incomplete, and as lacking in responsibility for his actions. Tiger Woods’ apology was somewhere in the middle of the two and very, very long.
While Effron & Monin do not discuss apology—we see this as directly connected to being “let off the hook”. If you can apologize effectively (as did Letterman) you can go a long ways toward the “likeable” category again. And that is critically important if you are headed for a real court (let alone the court of public opinion).
Effron DA, & Monin B (2010). Letting people off the hook: when do good deeds excuse transgressions? Personality and social psychology bulletin, 36 (12), 1618-34 PMID: 20978222