… and the research to back it up.
by Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D. on Jul 18, 2015 in Fulfillment at Any Age
Everyone makes excuses from time to time, and some of us do it more than others. Even if you feel like you’re an honest, hard-working, trustworthy individual (as most of us do), there will be situations in which you just don’t or can’t follow through on a promise. Whether it’s attending a family event, meeting a job deadline, going out with friends, or spending an evening helping the kids with homework, invariably we find ourselves feeling no choice but to use an “untruth” (i.e., a lie) in order to avoid disappointing others.
I will not offer guidance on how to be a more believable excuse-teller by fibbing more effectively. In fact, you might not appreciate the advice I’m providing at first, but if you choose to follow it, and make it a habit, you’ll be glad you did.
Here’s the advice, simple and unadulterated: Just tell the truth.
Not some version of the truth, or part of the truth, or truth that’s technically true but isn’t the real reason for your behavior. It’s got to be, as they say, “the whole truth.”
If you do it, you’ll never again forget which excuses you made to whom, because the truth will be at the bottom of all your explanations. At an ethical level, telling the truth helps you to believe you’re a good and honest individual while allowing you to behave in ways consistent with that self-image.
Before getting to the reason for this advice, let’s look at three faux excuses that don’t measure up to the truth:
- The version of the truth. You were late for a meeting due to lingering too long over your latte. There was a particularly busy rush hour that day, so you offer as your excuse, “Traffic was terrible today.”
- Part of the truth. You don’t really want to go to the Jack-and-Jill wedding shower you were invited to, so you give as your excuse the fact that your family is coming into town that day. It is true they’re coming, but the shower will be long over by the time your folks arrive in town.
- Technically the truth. Some lawyers are expert at giving reasons that are true but only in the technical sense of the word. It is possible, using this logic, that you only remembered your friend’s birthday 3 days after it was over. Your excuse may be that you think it’s much better to wish someone happy birthday in person. Technically that is true, but it’s not why you missed the big day.
In each of these cases, an honest excuse would have involved some loss of face or admission of fault; you’re not perfect after all. However, you would at least be spared the burden of having to remember all the surrounding details of the excuses you gave.
When communicated in a straightforward manner, being honest about the reason for your stumble allows the other individuals involved to feel empathy with you. If you provide an explanation that makes sense—and is 100% truthful—they should be more inclined to try to understand the situation from your perspective. Everyone is late sometimes, we all forget important occasions, and plenty of us prefer a Sunday afternoon alone than in the company of people opening presents.
Putting your reasoning out there in a relatable manner will be more likely to lead others to forgive you.
What the Research Says
Gettysburg College psychologist Christopher Barlett (2013) was interested in the kinds of excuses people make after they inadvertently hurt someone in an interpersonal situation. Maybe they bump into someone and dismiss it with, “I’m having a bad day,” or, “I just had a fight with my boyfriend.” Such excuses provide “mitigating information…defined as factors that may change an initially hostile attribution after a provocation into one that is less personally threatening” (p. 472). The intention of offering such an excuse is to reduce the likelihood that the victim of the shove becomes angry and aggressive.
But do these excuses actually work?
To answer this question, Barlett analyzed data from 15 studies based on a search of the literature for terms such as anger, misattribution, aggression, and reappraisal. Each study examined participants who manipulated mitigating information to reduce aggression toward them for some type of affront. In the studies, aggressive behavior was measured in a variety of ways, ranging from evaluations by the experimenter to the amount of time excuse-makers were exposed to a (faked) “shock” or keeping their hands in a bucket of ice water. All studies involved manipulating the information that participants received about the cause of the affront and whether apologies or excuses were more effective in reducing willingness to aggress than others.
Supporting the idea that an honest excuse is the best remedy for an affront, Barlett found that when the provocation wasn’t severe, mitigating information (the excuse) reduced aggression when it was considered honest and did not include an apology. The key to making an excuse work, Barlett concluded, is to make it effective in changing the offended person’s appraisal of the provocation.
An effective excuse is detailed enough to provide that key mitigating information and justifies why you thought or did what you did. An apology may seem lame to the recipient because it doesn’t provide that mitigating information. An honest excuse is the best. When you lie about the reasons for your behavior, it’s much more difficult to come up with an elaborate justification that will convince the other person to feel less angry toward you.
As long as the offending behavior isn’t too harsh (such as if you were to injure the other person), your best option is to share an honest, detailed excuse. Justifying your behavior won’t change what happened, but it can change the way the behavior is perceived. It will preserve your relationships and allow you to maintain harmony with loved ones.
Barlett, C. P. (2013). Excuses, excuses: A meta‐analytic review of how mitigating information can change aggression and an exploration of moderating variables. Aggressive Behavior, 39(6), 472-481.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne