On Emotions

Excuses, emotions and in between - the viewpoint of the listener

Shlomo Hareli - Department of Psychology - University of Haifa



* Presented as a poster at the ISRE (International Society for Research on Emotions) Toronto, 1996


Making excuses is a common phenomenon; yet, it is a complex one, and we are far from understanding all its aspects. Excuses are most often dealt with under different headings and within different theories and domains, such as impression management, attribution, accountability, etc. Different taxonomies with excuses as one of their categories have been suggested. Actually, even what is an excuse isn’t all that clear.

Some include certain types of account, such as denial and justification, under excuses (e.g. Snyder et al., 1983), while others do not, and maintain that they are types of account in their own right (e.g., Austin, 1979; Scott & Lyman, 1968). Another controversial issue is the question of truth value; some view excuses as a type of lie, deception, or a half-truth (e.g. Henberg, 1986), while for others only certain excuses are lies (e.g. Caron et al., 1992; Weiner et al., 1991). Hence, it is not clear what role truth value has as a defining characteristic for excuses.

At least part of the these problems are related to the fact that the term excuse has several uses as well as connotations, which render it vague. This also has to do with the fact that discussions on excuses in psychology and other fields most often concentrate on the point of view of the excuse maker. There are a few discussions that do look into the influence an excuse has upon the listener (e.g. Ohbuchi & Sato, 1994), but these do not deal directly with the question why an account is being perceived as an excuse. While the listener’s viewpoint is indeed of less relevance to many issues, it becomes important when we want to try to understand and elaborate some of the issues regarding the question “what is an excuse”, especially since in most cases it is the listener who will attach the label “excuse” to an account given and not the excuse maker. Accordingly, the main question to be addressed here will be: what makes one view a message one is offered as an excuse, and what are the emotional consequences of doing so?

Because of the vague nature of the term, I will limit my discussion here to the sort of excuse that has a negative connotation, when, e.g., one’s reaction to an explanation one is given for someone’s action can best be described as “that’s just an excuse”. It may be the typical or even the only connotation for everyday instances (as seems to be the case in Hebrew; for the claim that this is the case also in English, see Sigmon & Snyder, 1993). This use of the term may be only one of many but the question remains open and deserves to be further investigated. In the following I will also concentrate on why this type of excuse has such a bad reputation. The main reason, I believe, is that excuses of this kind do not do the job they are meant to be doing.

As implied earlier, as other related types of accounts, an excuse, always involves two aspects: a transmitting agent and a listening agent. This is true also in those cases where the two agents are being represented within the same individual. The dance can start through the initiative of either of these two, but the listener is always the first then to take the lead, since the point of the exercise is for the listener to be satisfied and he / she will decide the end result. In order to better understand this point of view, I will first describe the floor where this dance takes place.

Human beings are social agents who depend on other people and care about the opinions and actions of other people. So, the emotional interest people have in others is quite pervasive. As such, our actions are often questioned or criticized by others or even by ourselves and we are asked to explain and defend them, especially when the action (a) has an undesirable outcome, or (b) is odd. So, a proper term for such situations is situations of questionable actions.

An example of an undesirable outcome is a situation where, by failing to do something we should have done, we have inflicted harm on someone. An example of an odd situation is that of someone who claims never to buy a house with three rooms and a front door painted black. While in the first case some form of damage is done, the second case does not involve any damage but just sounds very odd. Both types of action can be questioned by the performer as well as the listener and hence require some sort of explanation.

An action with an undesirable outcome requires an explanation only when a certain degree of responsibility can be attributed to us and when the outcome reaches a certain extent of undesirability. When we are not responsible for the action or it has no significant negative impact in our view or in that of others, no explanation is required for that action. A situation with an odd action is not one which is undesirable but is viewed as simply deviating from some acceptable norm. In many cases this deviation requires explanation. While undesirable outcomes are usually the result of a specific act, odd actions can also stem from one’s personality or character traits. Accordingly, odd actions can be part of someone’s typical behavior, that is, they are more a peculiar way of action and do not necessarily imply pathological deviation from normality. It is also of course possible that a person causes damage because of his /her usual behavior, but such cases are rare and then often limited to people which are viewed as deviants or mentally ill.

The demand for an explanation for a questionable action can be either direct and explicit or indirect and implicit. It can either come from another person or from the subject him - or herself who somehow feels uneasy or unsatisfied with his / her own action. When one’s actions are judged as questionable, i.e. negative, undesirable or odd, one is made to feel uncomfortable and sets out to change the situation and reduce uneasiness by offering some sort of an explanation.

Questionable actions can be regarded as such even before the action has been performed. One can predict, e.g., that a future action may be viewed by others as undesirable or odd and so as being potentially questionable. In such cases, the explanation may come prior to the action and will be used as a means to pre-empt criticism. The logic is the same but the timing is different: first comes the explanation and then the action. There is no explicit demand for an explanation but the explanation is volunteered by the subject because he/she is aware that the intended action may be considered undesirable or odd. Later, such an explanation may itself cause an undesirable or odd situation that may need further treatment on the part of the subject (see also, Schonbach, 1990).

Not in all cases may we feel unease because of our questionable actions. If the context is such that we do not care about the person who views our actions as questionable, we will be indifferent as to what has happened or is going to happen. For us to feel uneasy with our behavior, not only must it be questionable, but also the one who questions it must be of some relevance to us.

To sum up, questionable actions share two basic elements: (a) there is, or is expected to be, a situation associated with the subject’s responsibility, and (b) there is a need for an explanation due to some sort of uneasiness.

There are three major types of reaction to such situations: (a) avoidance, (b) admission, and (c) defense.

(a) Avoidance. We avoid dealing with our responsibility or the outcomes of our actions. Such avoidance may be because we do not care about the situation and do not feel obliged to invest any effort in changing its consequences. Avoidance may also be the result of our inability to improve our image by explaining the questionable action. Whichever, we are not ready to assume responsibility since the price we have to pay may be considerable; accordingly, we leave things as they are, hoping that the demand for an explanation will evaporate with time, and the uneasiness with it.

(b) Admission. We admit our responsibility and may also wish for forgiveness. While here we are still being held responsible for the situation, we may restore our former positive image by being viewed as honest and by that also relieve the uneasiness.

(c) Defense. We try to eliminate or reduce the negative aspects associated with our action. The typical defense consists in offering some sort of explanation that will clear us from the blame for the questionable action. Typical types of defense are denial, justification and excuse. I will limit my discussion here only to justification and excuse.

Questionable actions need to be defended when we are considered to be responsible for an undesirable or odd outcome. Offering such a defense should then refer to (a) our responsibility, and (b) the undesirable or odd nature of the outcome. When we are held responsible for an undesirable situation, we are to explain the reasons for our actions in order that it will bring about an evaluation of the situation or the outcome whereby it no longer will seem so negative.

Two types of explanation may be discerned:

(a) justification, and
(b) excuse.

I will suggest the following characterization of justifications and excuses.

Justification. An explanation which is aimed at eliminating or lessening the negative value of the outcome of a questionable action.

Excuse. An explanation which is aimed at eliminating or lessening our responsibility for a questionable action.

As suggested before, in both justification and excuse there is an agent who demands an explanation and an agent who supplies the explanation. Something is termed “justification” or “excuse” from the view point of the listener -- the agent supplying the information may consider it differently. The agent may be lying but as long as the listener is unable to detect the lie, though he /she may intuit something is “fishy”, the explanation given will be considered as a justification or an excuse rather than a lie. If we accept as justification the account offered by another person, then by definition we cannot consider it as a lie. The same holds for an explanation accepted as an excuse; if we know a person to be fully responsible for a certain outcome, we will not accept his or her explanation as an excuse but as a lie.

There are two conditions that must be satisfied from the viewpoint of the listener so that the explanation will be regarded as an excuse:

  • The explanation leaves the situation indeterminate, i.e., the explanation fails to persuade that a better alternative to the questionable action may have been quite available. Accordingly, an excuse does little to relief the emotional tension that has been created. The listener may still feel anger, or even disappointment after he/she has received the explanation.

  • The listener is unable to prove that the explanation holds no water. The explanation underlying an excuse may not be regarded as a lie from a correspondence criterion of truth, i.e., there are no known facts that clearly contradict it. But it would seem to be false from a coherence criterion of truth, that is, it is not consistent with our overall experience, attitudes, or beliefs. This characterization helps explain the bad connotation associated with excuses. This point is important since, as mentioned, some writers view an excuse invariably as a type of lie. While an excuse is similar to a lie in the sense that it is being believed to involve false information, there is a difference in the feeling it leaves with the listener. Because of the wider criterion upon which such a belief is now based, there will never be complete certainty that the information provided is false.

Although in many cases the content of the explanation is the main reason for it being perceived as described above, there are some additional factors that can turn any explanation into an excuse. There are three such main factors, whose basic element is a discrepancy between the two points of view, that of the listener and that of the excuse maker:

(a) knowledge of reality;
(b) attitudes;
(c) attachment of inflated responsibility and importance.

Knowledge of reality. There are cases where the two parties possess different knowledge of facts related to the specific action. So, what may look as a good reason on the part of the excuse maker, may look insufficient and unsatisfactory on the part of the listener who holds fewer, more, or different facts about the situation.

Attitudes. The two parties may differ in the importance and value they attach to the situation or to their relationship. So, what may be satisfying and adequate for the excuse maker, may be insufficient and improper for the listener.

Attachment of inflated responsibility and importance. Some social roles and positions, as well as people that hold them, may sometimes be perceived as involving more power and authority than they actually contain. The same is true of the way people think such persons ought to treat certain issues. Such perceptions may lead people to attach inflated responsibility to the one in such a position, and to feel that some issues are being dealt with in a less serious way then they ought to be. Therefore, any explanation on the part of someone holding such a position meant to reduce or eliminate responsibility or to treat the issue as less serious or severe, will be seen as an excuse.

These factors make the situation even more complicated since it can lead to an unresolved conflict with the two parties being left hurt and dissatisfied. Together with the form of a typical excuse, these factors help us understand the view point of the listener, why he/she comes to regard an explanation as an excuse and the emotional reaction such an explanation calls up.

According to the framework here suggested, the relationship between excuses and emotions can be summarized by a few central points:

1. Questionable actions, specifically when they involve damage, may cause negative emotions in those being hurt, and in some cases, also in those that caused the damage.

2. Excuses are explanations aimed to repair one’s self image, the emotional damage related with the loss of that self-image and the emotional damage caused to another agent, while trying to protect the listener from being emotionally hurt (cf. Weiner et al., 1991). Excuses typically do little by way of repairing the emotional damage caused, but usually succeed well where restoring one’s self image is concerned and the emotional uneasiness associated with it.

3. An excuse may, under some circumstances, cause further aggravation of the emotional tension between the parties involved, or even be the factor that will cause such a tension to arise, because of two main factors: (a) as an usually unsatisfactory explanation, it may be perceived as continuing or even initiating the same sort of undesirable behavior evolved by the questionable action, namely, hurting the listener; (b) when it fails to be accepted by the other side, the excuse maker may view this as a violation of the relationship and trust, especially when from his/her point of view the excuse given contains a satisfactory explanation.

It is important to remember that all this is true only of the specific meaning of excuse we are dealing with here , i.e., unsatisfactory explanation to a questionable action. It is not necessarily true of all meanings of the term excuse. Still, I believe that the above suggestions may help us understand better some of the main points raised at the beginning.

They are given here in the form of preliminary speculations which should of course be validated by detailed empirical research -- we are now in the process of conducting such research at the University of Haifa.



Austin, J.L. (1979). A plea for excuses. In Philosophical Papers, 3rd edn, pp. 175-204. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Caron, M.D., Whitbourne, S.K., & Halgin, R.P. (1992). Fraudulent excuse making among college students. Teaching of Psychology, 19, 90-93.

Henberg, M. (1986). Letting sleeping truths lie. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 16,281-296.

Ohbuchi, K.I., & Sato, K. (1994). Children’s reactions to mitigating accounts: apologies, excuses, and intentionality of harm. The Journal of Social Psychology, 134, 5-17.

Schonbach, P. (1990). Account episodes - The management or escalation of conflict. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Scott, M.B., & Lyman, S.M. (1968). Accounts. American Sociological Review, 33, 46-62.

Sigmon, S. T., & Snyder, C. R. (1993). Looking at oneself in a rose-colored mirror: The role of excuses in the negotiation of a personal reality. In M. Lewis & C. Saarni (Eds.), Lying and deception in everyday life. New York: Guilford.

Snyder, C.R., Higgins, R.L., & Stucky, R.J. (1983). Excuses: Masquerades in search of grace. John Wiley & Sons: New-York.

Weiner, B., Figueroa-Munoz, A., & Kakihara, C. (1991). The goals of excuses and communications strategies related to causal perceptions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 17, 4-13.


Acknowledgments - I wish to thank Professor Ben Ze’ev for his helpful remarks and discussions.


(c)1997 YK: axelf@axelf.com