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A Simple Way to Excuse Embarrassing Behavior

How embarrassing can it be if other people act the same way?

Key points

  • We naturally seek excuses for our unflattering behaviors.
  • Highlighting, if we can, the commonality of our lapses is one simple approach.
  • It can work like magic and relies on a simple but powerful attributional logic.
Dean Drobot Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot Shutterstock

I left my water bottle in the YMCA locker room after a swim and didn’t notice until a few days later.

I checked with the front desk about the bottle, and sure enough, it was there in their lost and found area.

This was not the first time. And much to my embarrassment, the same staff person had retrieved it previously.

Recognizing my embarrassment, she offered some comforting words,

"It happens a lot."

What a simple, effective way to lessen my embarrassment.

But why, more precisely, did it work?

Clearly, by suggesting that my mental lapse was common, by normalizing it, we both could construe it as hardly an embarrassment at all.

Social psychologists, using attribution theory, might suggest that the construal comes down to answering a causal question. Was my oversight because of something about me (I am a forgetful person) or because of something about the situation (using the locker room causes most people to occasionally leave items, such as water bottles, locks, shampoo, and so on)?

Naturally, when a behavior is unflattering, we prefer the situation to be the cause. This excuses our behavior.

The real or apparent behavior of people in similar circumstances powerfully affects our causal perceptions.

If most other people behave similarly (high consensus in attribution theory terms), something about the situation is likely the cause of the behavior.

If most people do not behave similarly, (low consensus) something about the person is the likely cause.

These simple attributional patterns obey a powerful logic.

No wonder so many excuses for errors and missteps rely on pointing out, sometimes distorting, the commonness of the behavior, or, as it is technically labeled in attribution theory, "consensus-raising."

Instinctively, a child will excuse a misdeed by pointing out that a sibling did the same thing.

A politician in one party lies, but defenders argue the other side does the same, a variant of moral equivalence.

And on and on.

Of course, consensus-raising need not be in the service of an excuse.

It can also help a doctor soften a diagnosis (your condition is quite common).

And its opposite (consensus-lowering) can underscore a positive behavior (you are such a thoughtful person, you were the only one to offer help) or accentuate the negative (he must be cheap, he's the only one who didn't leave a tip).

But for excusing an unflattering behavior, suggesting its commonness is hard to beat.

Far from a feeble excuse, you have a face-saving, convincing explanation for your behavior.


Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In D. Levine (Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Malle, B. F. (2022). Attribution theories: How people make sense of behavior. In Chadee, D. (Ed.), Theories in social psychology (2nd edition, pp. 93-119). Wiley-Blackwell.

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