Tiger’s Apology

Tiger Woods just held a press conference, making a 14-minute apology for his transgressions.

The apology itself was point-by-point perfect, so perfect that it’s hard not to imagine that it was the product of professional PR advice (not that there’s anything wrong with that — if I had his profile and were in his situation, I’d seek expert advice at this juncture, too.)

He offered two very different explanations for his wrongdoing, explanations that are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but just very different.

Woods’ first explanation was that he had succumbed to temptation. The particular explanation he offered was that he had allowed himself to believe that the rules didn’t apply to him, and that he had allowed himself to think that he had earned the right to enjoy the temptations around him. (As I’ve discussed here before, there’s reason to think that excuse-making, and in particular the process of making exceptions for oneself, is a key component in various kinds of wrongdoing.)

The second, very different, explanation, was a medical one. Though he was vague about this, Woods said he had spent most of the last 2 months in treatment, receiving counselling and therapy. (Roughly, it seems the implication is that he suffers from addiction — namely, that he’s a sex addict.)

I don’t know (and the talking heads on TV don’t know either, regardless of what they say) which of those explanations is correct, or whether there’s some truth in both of them.) But it’s crucial to see how different those 2 explanations are. The first is basically cognitive: the implication is that Wood had formulated a certain kind of argument in his head, namely an argument that said that he was subject to an exception to the rules he said he himself believed in. The second explanation is, roughly, biomedical — roughly that there is something, presumably something subconscious, in Tiger’s head that makes him behave wrongly.

Now, Tiger Woods’ wrongdoing was primarily not a question of business ethics. His wrongs were largely personal wrongs. But the question of what makes people do bad things is an important one in business ethics (and in other fields). So it’s worth considering: is the cognitive (excuse-giving) part of his explanation plausible? Is it sufficient? And to the extent that it resonates with what we know about other cases of wrongdoing, does it point to a strategy for reducing the frequency of wrongdoing in particular contexts?

7 comments so far

  1. Anonymous on

    If his wrongdoing is the result of a medical condition, then he’s actually saying it’s not his fault. We can’t fault anyone for having cancer. He may just be being polite, but really not asking pardon. As for the first excuse, that’s more owing up to the blame. But excuse 1 and 2 can’t be true at the same time.

  2. Chris MacDonald on


    Actually, they can be true at the same time, if the addiction induces the addict to engage in excuse-making, which it very likely does.

    Addiction isn’t entirely inconsistent with fault, though it would be a mitigating circumstance.


  3. rob on

    In your last question, are you talking about personal strategies, or something else? That question is begging for a social science study of some kind. Have there been any good ones?

    Also, are you inclined towards particular answers to your questions, or are you just throwing the questions out there while you think about it some more?

  4. Chris MacDonald on


    I mean personal or institutional (or educational!) strategies.

    No, I don’t have answers at this point. My friend Joseph Heath wrote a great article that talks about the excuse-giving problem, and suggests changes in business school curricula accordingly. See “Business Ethics and Moral Motivation: A Criminological Perspective” (J. Bus Ethics, 2008. 83:4, 595-614.)


  5. Jim Sabin on

    Hi Chris –

    The issue you raise about the “cognitive” v “biomedical” explanations is a big one in psychiatry and psychology, often summarized as “mad” v “bad”. But as the anonymous comment suggests, they can both be true at the same time.

    AA provides an illuminating window onto our human tendency towards either/or thinking. AA insists that alcoholism is a disease. As such alcoholism is seen as something that people “have,” not what they “are.” Typically we’re not in charge of whether we have a disease or not. And the first step in the 12 step program is acknowledging powerlessness.

    But as the AA participant works through the program, the steps call for progressively more taking of responsibility. Many AA aphorisms emphasize human agency and responsibility for our actions, as in “reach for the telephone [to call your sponsor or an AA friend], not for the bottle.”

    In my psychiatric practice I learned a lot about how the “cognitive” and “biomedical” models could be useful for the same person, often in relation to the same phenomena. Tiger Woods may have a biomedical tilt towars “sex addiction.” But that doesn’t obviate his responsibility for governing his own actions, as by avoiding situations he knows himself to be vulnerable to.

    As always, thank you for your thoughtful post!



  6. Anonymous on

    Nick Carraway from OS, posting on this side of the wall.
    As you recall, I was insistent that Woods never referred to himself as a sex addict. However, since commentators picked up on his choice in patient treatment as if he were being treated for addiction, I wanted to address that particular point.

    Instead of elaborating more on my already lengthy comments on OS, I wrote my own blog post titled “Homos and Nymphos” which discusses some history of classifying sexual behavior between consenting adults as psychopathology, and how silly it sounds today.

    I won’t go through my arguments here, except to say that if there were evidence that chemical dependency treatment programs were highly effective, then it might make sense to advocate their use for other behavioral problems. Since they don’t work especially well, the expansion of the notion of addiction to behaviors without physical dependency seems, frankly, idiotic.

    This is important, among other reasons, because there is pressure from some groups to include sexual addiction in the next version of DSM — DSM V. If there isn’t a code for it, you can’t bill for it — so it is a big deal. And, if the notion that sexual addiction is a bona fide psychiatric illness, treatment will become a right — not simply an option for those that can afford the expense like Woods.

  7. Max on

    Tiger’s apology should have been within (say) 48 hours rather than after several weeks or months. The apology itself appeared to be well scripted and lacking in sincerity e.g. using his “medical condition” as an excuse. When a man or woman makes a mistake, a full and sincere apology should be forthcoming, in a timely manner.

    That being said, we all make mistakes, so let’s not crucify him. Let’s give him a chance to improve, and redeem himself, instead of pointing the finger at him and putting pressure on his spouse to divorce him, etc.

    Maxwell Pinto, Business Author

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