5 Ways to Handle Excuses from Those You Care About
Learning what's behind an excuse can help you be more forgiving.
Posted Dec 06, 2014
You know it when it happens, but there’s little you can do to stop it. I’m referring to the tendency that people have to come up with fake excuses when there’s something they don’t want to do, forgot to do, or had no intention of doing in the first place. In a previous blog post, I examined the question of why people lie, cheat, and make excuses, but here I’d like to focus specifically on excuses and what to do when someone you love is using them on you.
According to a 2012 article by University of Manitoba psychologists Tara Thatcher and Donald Bailis, failure is one of the most common reasons for making an excuse. As they point out, the function of excuses is to “distance the self from responsibility and reduce feelings of culpability, thereby protecting the excuse-maker’s self and/or public image.” By making up an excuse, in other words, we cover our tracks and don’t have to admit to a personal weakness or failing. In this regard, excuse-making is a form of defense mechanism because it allows you to protect yourself from the anxiety you would feel from being a failure.
Sometimes individuals make up “pre-excuses,” in which they tell themselves, and possibly others, that they won’t be able to get something done when in reality they’re afraid to try. By setting the stage for failure, the pre-excuser doesn’t have to be held responsible for an inability to succeed.
Thatcher and Bailis decided to approach such problems from the standpoint of self-determination theory, a motivational theory proposing that we are most likely to try to achieve goals that we ourselves set rather than those forced upon us by others. When you are autonomously motivated, you feel an inner drive and feel that you are in control of your destiny. If you fail, you’re failing yourself, not someone else. The question is whether people who have this inner-directed reason for doing something will be less likely to come up with excuses when they fail.
Being defensive isn’t an all-or-nothing phenomenon, according to Thatcher and Bailis. Even if you’re autonomously motivated, you might prefer one type of excuse over another, or what they called “selective defensiveness.” Some excuses might be better than others in terms of reducing your anxiety about failure but still allowing you to hold onto your goals.
The Thatcher and Bailis study compared three types of excuses using the triangle model of responsibility (Schlenker et al., 1994). Prescription-identity (PI) excuses argue that the individual wasn’t interested in performing a behavior in the first place (“It wasn’t my goal to do behavior X”). Identity-event (IE) excuses are used to claim that you had no personal control over the outcome of an event (“The situation was beyond my control”). Prescription-event (PE) excuses blame the excuse on the event itself or unclear instructions (“No one told me what to do”).
The kinds of excuses Thatcher and Bailis were studying involved ones we’re all used to using, namely the excuse not to exercise. When people are autonomously motivated to exercise, they see it as a goal they’re imposing on themselves rather than something to please others.
The data from several correlational and experimental studies on undergraduate populations provided a complex picture explaining the connection between motivation, defensiveness, and excuse-making. People more autonomously motivated to exercise turned out to avoid making the most harmful types of excuses that both lowered their commitment and put the blame on themselves. They were also helped in their excuse-making when given signals that a certain amount of excuse-making is acceptable.
Essentially, then, the best type of excuse is one that doesn’t keep you from giving up on your goals, allows you to engage in a protective amount of self-deception, and doesn’t bring about negative consequences either in your personal relationships or your ability to meet goals in the future.
Drawing implications from their extensive investigations, which I've summarized only briefly here, Thatcher and Bailis propose that anyone who’s in a position to receive excuse-making appeals (teachers, coaches, other helping professionals) think about an “excuse-making trajectory.” Before your charges have established their own autonomous goals, don’t accept the “not my goal” excuses and instead allow them to engage in the face-saving excuses of saying they had no control or weren’t given adequate information. The same can be true of those you're in a relationship with. Rather than expect people not to make excuses at all, help them choose better ones.
Here, then, are the five tips:
1. Make sure the excuse is, in fact, phony. Your partner may claim that you never mentioned the need to take the garbage out, so that's why it's still sitting there under the sink. Think back and reflect on whether you were as clear with your instructions as you thought you were.
2. Understand where the excuse is coming from. If people who are in relationships with you are constantly coming up with the excuses, it’s possible that they just aren’t all that motivated to accomplish the goals you want them to. It's also possible that they've made an honest mistake that they are now trying to cover up.
3. Recognize that everyone, even you, makes excuses. No one is immune from the desire to protect self-esteem. Being totally honest with yourself, when was the last time you claimed to be too busy to reply to an email when, actually, you just didn't want to deal with it?
4. Be tolerant of those who make excuses to you. Catching someone in a phony excuse shouldn't be an excuse for you to launch into a tirade. People who fear your reaction are not going to confide in you about why they can't or didn't do something. If they feel their behavior will be accepted they will be less likely to come up with the excuse in the first place. Getting mad is the worst way to deal with a phony excuse.
5. Help the excuse-maker save face. If it's when people feel threatened that they make up excuses, then by respecting their need for self-esteem, you can cut down on the phony excuse-making in the first place.
In general, you can put people's excuse-making tendencies to work by fostering self-directed motivational strategies. Help shore up their self-determination, and those excuses won't stand in the way of your relationship's future.
Schlenker, B.R., Britt, T.W., Pennington, J., Murphy, R., & Doherty, K. (1994). The triangle model of responsibility. Psychological Review, 101, 632-652.
Thacher, T. M., & Bailis, D. S. (2012). Selective defensiveness or nondefensiveness: How does relative autonomy relate to excuse-making when goal pursuits do not succeed?. Motivation And Emotion, 36(3), 323-337. doi:10.1007/s11031-011-9248-3