An excuse involves circumstances in which people perceive that they have made mistakes and, in response to these uncomfortable situations, will say or do things to (a) make the mistakes seem not so bad, and/or (b) lessen their linkages to the mistakes. People are motivated to make excuses to preserve their images of being good and in control, and these preserved images are for both the surrounding people who may have witnessed the mistakes, as well as the actual people who made the errors. If the excuse is effective, the givers’ positive images are preserved and they can continue to perform well and interact with people just as they did before the slip-ups happened.
There probably have been excuses for as long as there have been people making mistakes. Nevertheless, a common view among lay people is that excuses are transparent and useless ploys. Also, the individual believes that other people use excuses but that he or she does not. Contrary to these negative views among the public at large, however, researchers have found that excuses are serious and generally effective coping mechanisms when used in moderation.
Alfred Adler first discussed the role of excuses in safeguard mechanisms, which are coping strategies for maintaining the positive self-images of people. Scholarly interest in excuses was kindled in the 1970s and 1980s when social psychologists began to explore the attributions that people make for why things happened to them. During this same time period, work on excuses increased when researchers’ attentions shifted to what was called impression management, or the attempts that people make to maintain their favorable self-images—both for the external audiences of other people and the internal audience of oneself.
Evidence for Excuse
As psychologists began to study excuses, they observed what people said and did after they had made mistakes or failed in important activities. There were two common responses that people produced. First, people would say things to lessen the seeming badness of their mistakes. For example, a man who is trying to lose weight breaks his diet by having a piece of cake. He then goes into excuse-making mode as he tries to diminish the badness of this misdeed by saying, “It was only a small piece of cake.” Second, people attempt to lessen their linkages to their mistakes. For example, consider a young girl who picks up her friend’s doll and takes it home. Later, when caught in this theft, she says, “Patty (the playmate who owns the doll) said I could have it (this not being true).”
After observing such real-life examples of excusing, researchers set up experimental situations in which the participants would fail at ego-involving tasks. One experimental approach was to give students a classroom-like learning experience and afterward deliver feedback to one set of students that they had done very poorly (the failure condition). In comparison to another groups of students, who were told that they had done very well, these failure-feedback students were more likely to state that the task was very difficult. Such excuse making made it seem as if their bad performances really were not so bad after all because most other students also did poorly (thereby maintaining a positive image); moreover, if the task truly was so difficult, the inherent logic was that the task caused the poor performance rather than it being the responsibility of the student (thereby lessening that student’s linkage to the poor performance). This “everyone would do poorly on that task” represented a “double play” type of excuse in that it preserved the positive image and lessened the student’s responsibility for the failure.
There is yet other research that has examined the effects of making excuses upon excuse makers’ subsequent performances. Generally, when compared to people who were not allowed to make excuses, persons who have been allowed to make successful excuses for poor performances will do better the next time they undertake the same tasks. The reasoning here is that successful excuses allow people to preserve their self-views about being effective people, and thus they can go into the next performance situations and remain focused and energized to do well. These successful excusing people are to be contrasted with people who either are not allowed to make excuses or whose excuses fail. These latter people are demoralized when they face the next similar performance situations and, accordingly, they are unlikely to do well.
Last, research shows that when a person makes a mistake or fails, there is considerable tension among the surrounding people until an excuse is offered. Therefore, if the person who actually made the mistake does not offer an excuse, the nearby people will jump in and make excuses for that person. This shows how necessary excuses are for the surrounding social context.
Excuse Importance and Implications
Among the public at large, excuses are seen as silly and lightweight ploys that are used by other people. Contrary to this negative view, the research evidence shows that excuses assist people in coping with their fallibilities and proneness to making mistakes. One advantage of excuses is that they help people to maintain a sense of esteem and control in their lives. Without excuses, people would be faced with the terrifying possibility that they are absolutely responsible and accountable for their errors and blunders. Living in such a no-excuse world, people would fall into unmotivated states of depression. Similarly, excuses facilitate social exchanges among people. That is to say, if people knew that they could not call on excuses in their future endeavors where they might fail, they would be unwilling to take chances and try such new activities. Thus, excuses provide a social lubricant so that people can attempt new things with the understanding that others will accept their excuses. Having stated these advantages of excuses, however, it should be emphasized that such excusing is only effective when it is used in moderation and is not employed in the presence of experts who can refute the person’s excuse.
- Higgins, R. L., & Snyder, C. R. (1989). Excuses gone awry: An analysis of self-defeating excuses. In R. C. Curtis (Ed.), Self-defeating behaviors: Experimental research and practical implications (pp. 99-130). New York: Plenum.
- Higgins, R. L., & Snyder, C. R., & Berglas, S. (1990). Self-handicapping: The paradox that isn t. New York: Plenum.
- Schlenker, B. R. (1980). Impression management: The self concept, social identity, and interpersonal relations. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.
- Snyder, C. R., & Higgins, R. L. (1988). Excuses: Their effective role in the negotiation of reality. Psychological Bulletin, 104, 23-35.
- Snyder, C. R., Higgins, R. L., & Stucky, R. (2005). Excuses: Masquerades in search of grace (Rev. ed.). Clinton Corners, NY: Percheron.