* Presented as a poster at the ISRE
(International Society for Research on Emotions)
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 isnt 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
listeners 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.,
ones reaction to an explanation one is given
for someones action can best be described as
thats 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
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
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
ones personality or character traits.
Accordingly, odd actions can be part of
someones 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 ones 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 subjects
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
(a) justification, and
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
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
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
(a) knowledge of reality;
(c) attachment of inflated responsibility and
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 ones 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
ones 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
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
Ohbuchi, K.I., & Sato, K.
(1994). Childrens reactions to mitigating
accounts: apologies, excuses, and intentionality
of harm. The Journal of Social Psychology,
Schonbach, P. (1990). Account
episodes - The management or escalation of
conflict. Cambridge University Press:
Scott, M.B., & Lyman, S.M.
(1968). Accounts. American Sociological Review,
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.
I wish to thank Professor Ben Zeev for his
helpful remarks and discussions.