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How much is an apology worth?

President Barack Obama

One delicacy Washington usually shuns is good old humble pie. Even so, it seems like folks have been talking themselves hoarse with apologies lately. A lot of them are for, you guessed it, the botched rollout of Obamacare.

There was Medicare Chief Marilyn Tavenner: “I want to apologize to you that the website has not worked as well as it should.”

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius: “I apologize. I’m accountable to you for fixing these problems.”

President Obama apologized that some people are facing insurance cancellations: “I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me.”

Even CBS journalist Lara Logan issued a non-healthcare-related apology for 60 Minutes’ flawed Benghazi report.

But how much value do apologies actually have?

Davia Temin runs a marketing, crisis and reputation management firm for businesses. So she’s pretty good at spotting the faux-pology.

“That goes something like: ‘I’m so sorry you feel that way,’” she says.

Remember when the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch said he only markets to cool attractive people? Well, years later he is still regretting that his words were “interpreted in a manner that has caused offense.”

Temin says businesses also mess up apologies by going into denial.

“We really didn’t do that, did we? If we did do it, it really wasn’t that bad, was it?”

In medicine, more than 30 states now have laws that make it easier for doctors to say ‘I’m sorry,’ while making those apologies inadmissible in court. Some hospitals have reported that as transparency about medical errors goes up and safety improves, lawsuits go down.

Art Caplan directs the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU Langone Medical Center. He says research shows people are receptive to a doctor saying: ‘I’m sorry, my hand slipped.’

“That’s a terrible thing but it might be excused,” he says. “If you say, ‘I apologize, I came in drunk,’ apologies don’t get you very far.”

But presidential apologies are tricky. Political science professor Graham Dodds of Concordia University in Montreal points to what critics called Obama’s “apology tour” – the new president’s effort to mend fences in Europe and the Middle East.

“A lot of his critics, conservative critics especially, just thought this was terrible,” he says. “That the U.S. should never ever apologize. You know, you stand your ground, you never say sorry.”

And in fact, President Obama didn’t actually say ‘I’m sorry’ back then. It took the health care mess for him to do that now.

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