December 12, 2002 - Excuses

Broadcast on "Coast to Coast": December 12, 2002

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: Just in time for those unattainable New Year's resolutions, the art -- and danger -- of making excuses.

SCHLENKER: "What excuses do is try to diminish personal responsibility."

RS: Barry Schlenker is a social psychologist at the University of Florida.

SCHLENKER: "So it's an attempt to, in essence, say I'm not as responsible, and hence not as blameworthy, as you might otherwise think."

AA: Professor Schlenker says that, in the 1980s, a lot was written about how people come up with excuses to explain their behavior.

SCHLENKER: "Much of the research showed that excuses can actually produce beneficial consequences in the sense of salvaging self-esteem, making people feel better, maybe even allowing them to keep stronger relationships with others. Because it's a lot nicer if you make up an excuse, for example, for missing a lunch date or turning somebody down than if you say 'I didn't want to go out with you because I didn't like you' or 'I missed the lunch date because I had better things to do.'

"But one of the things that my colleagues and I felt was that the pendulum may have swung too far the other way now. Indeed, you now see in the psychology literature recommendations that, in essence, therapists help their clients generate excuses to make them feel better, to try to focus them on why perhaps some of their problems are not really their fault, they're not bad people."

AA: Professor Schlenker says he and his colleagues thought it was time to document what he calls "the other side of excuses" -- that is, the conditions under which people react very negatively to excuses.

So the researchers recently did a study. They described various hypothetical situations to students, and asked them to evaluate the people involved. In each situation, though, different students got different explanations to evaluate.

RS: For instance, a businessperson misses an important meeting and ends up losing a deal for the company. The person blames getting stuck in traffic. Some students were told that a news report said there had indeed been a traffic backup. Others were told that there had been an accident, but that other employees in the same building had arrived at work pretty much on time.

AA: In another example, a person blames a case of the flu for not getting work completed. Some students were told that the flu was indeed going around and a lot of people in the building were having trouble with work. But other students were told that, while the flu was going around, this was about the only person having trouble getting work done.

RS: So how did the students evaluate the various people and their excuses?

SCHLENKER: "When there was no corroboration for the excuse, or it was poor, they tended to evaluate the character of the person very low. When asked how good or bad a person it was, they tended to rate him pretty negatively. They also regarded him as very deceitful, very ineffective -- in other words, not the kind of person you'd want to trust with an important job -- very self-absorbed as compared to interested in, say, the company or other people. They liked and respected them less, and they regarded the explanation as much less legitimate and they blamed him much more for the transgression."

AA: And the lessons to be learned?

SCHLENKER: "To the extent that an excuse can be communicated with the appearance of sincerity, with apparent corroboration, without the attempt to drag somebody else down, under those conditions the excuse then becomes transformed into the reason and I think people are much more likely to accept it. The danger occurs when maybe the apparent sincerity is not quite as great, when cracks seem to occur in the description -- so that maybe the corroboration doesn't turn out to look as good. But to the extent people begin to doubt it, wonder about the corroboration, wonder about if the person really is too self-absorbed, then they can backfire and do exactly the opposite of what the excuse-maker intended, which is to produce very negative evaluations and an even bigger problem."

RS: "Let me ask you one last question. How would you rate this very popular excuse by schoolchildren: the dog ate my homework. (Laughter)"

SCHLENKER: "Well, I think we can go back to corroboration on that one. That one has been used so often by so many people that it becomes remarkably ineffective."

RS: "So even though we have a dog at home, and the dog does like homework, I should advise my son that that's not a great excuse to use at school."

SCHLENKER: "Well, my general of thumb is that if you really believe that that is -- if that is really what happened, I'd go for it. But I would also not be surprised if the recipient of that excuse regarded it as a pretty self-serving excuse."

RS: Professor Barry Schlenker at the University of Florida. And that's Wordmaster for this week.

AA: Our programs are on the Web at And our e-mail address is With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "I'm Sorry"/Brenda Lee