Could the Mayor of Toronto learn from the latest psychology of how to deliver the perfect excuse?
Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham
Following the release of a video portraying an agitated Mr Ford vowing to rip out someone’s throat, poke out his eyes and ensure his victim is dead during a rant, it is also now reported he is considering ‘rehab’.
Protestors in Toronto, who want him to resign, recently held up a sign to TV cameras explaining ‘I’m not at work today because I’m in one of my drunken stupors’.
Excusing alleged crack cocaine abuse by being in a drunken stupor may appear, at first glance, a poor strategy, yet psychological research confirms that well made excuses generally work. Indeed psychologists suggest we might even personally need excuses to preserve self-esteem and improve performance.
For example, a famous social psychology experiment showed that shy, socially anxious people who have an ‘excuse’, (such as loud background noise) for making a poor impression during a conversation, become more socially successful than those who do not have a salient excuse.
Excuses in certain situations, don’t just help us wriggle out of punishment, they can even rally us to do better in the future. This is because sometimes failure with no excuse is too threatening to our core self.
But excuses are only therapeutic if they help us skate over a temporary glitch. If we rely on excuses to constantly wriggle out of trouble, then pretexts become dangerous.
Psychologists Barry Schlenker, Beth Pontari and Andrew Christopher published one of the most comprehensive academic reviews of what makes a ‘successful’ excuse, but caution that we appear to be becoming a society where the cry ‘it’s not my fault’ has become an all too common refrain.
The Mayor may not realise psychologists have uncovered there is an art to constructing excuses that reliably get you out of trouble. Many now appear to be working harder at excuses than their actual jobs, but how to give a really good excuse still eludes most.
The authors of the paper, from the University of Florida, point out that an effective defence is designed to convince audiences, that to the extent that you are at fault, blunders derive from less central aspects of character (e.g., carelessness rather than stupidity).
Their review, entitled ‘Excuses and Character: Personal and Social Implications of Excuses’, points out a poorly made excuse leaves the culprit appearing deceitful, ineffectual, and self-absorbed to the detriment of others. Bad excuses dig you further into the hole you were trying to wriggle out of.
Professor Barry Schlenker has pioneered a simple technique called the ‘The Triangle Model of Responsibility’ which provides the scaffold on which effective excuses are constructed. Schlenker contends that responsibility is the basic psychological glue that connects us to a bungle.
The three components of the Responsibility Triangle are (a) prescription clarity – how clear were the rules that applied? Examples of excuses in this category are underperforming students’ explanations that, “The objectives of the class were unclear so I didn’t know how to get a good grade,” or “The instructor never explained what would be covered on the test.”
Then the next arm of the responsibility triangle is (b) personal obligation, the extent to which you were bound by the rules. Examples of such excuses according to Schlenker, Pontari and Christopher are, “That wasn’t my job, it was his,” “I’m too young to be considered responsible for murder,” “I don’t have to follow those rules because I’m the boss’s son,” and “I couldn’t complete the assigned task on time because my first duty was to resolve a family emergency.”
The final arm of the responsibility triangle is (c) personal control. For example, failures can be attributed to external circumstances that wrested control from you (e.g., “The dog ate my homework”). Internal states can similarly have deprived you of control (“I do poorly on that type of test because of my learning disability,” “I couldn’t help it, I was drunk”) or a combination of both (“I cheated on my spouse because I was psychologically abused as a child and developed an uncontrollable desire to be loved”).
Schlenker, Pontari and Christopher point out in their paper published in the academic journal ‘Personality and Social Psychology Review’, that all superior pretexts will make effective use of at least one arm or all of the Responsibility Triangle.
Schlenker, Pontari and Christopher contend that for excuses to work, then firstly, excuses must be credible. Secondly, excuses must maintain self-engagement in cases of important, recurring tasks. So the excuse of being in a drunken stupor, given a Mayor has to continue doing responsible work, won’t really cut it for an electorate. Thirdly, excuses must maintain goodwill for the excuse-maker, and not give the impression of self-absorption.
Effective excuses work because they permit the excuse-maker to maintain the appearance of having integrity, being effectual, and concerned with the greater good (e.g., upholding important principles, caring about others) rather than being self-absorbed.
But having illuminated how to make effective excuses, the authors question whether there hasn’t been a general growing societal tendency to shift blame and not take responsibility. We appear to have become a culture where a litany of excuses are deployed to explain away transgressions and failures. The proclamation “It’s not my fault” is everywhere.
Schlenker, Pontari and Christopher argue that if we don’t take responsibility for our lives and therefore our errors, then we become unreliable. Being reliable means that others can depend on us.
Being reliable often involves personal costs, such as keeping one’s word even when it might be more profitable in the short run to break it, expending extra effort, even when quitting is easier, or acting to take into account others, instead of focusing solely on one’s own welfare.
The grave danger of excuses is they carry the serious potential to undermine reliability. Once reliability is undermined, then society ceases to function.
The Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford was quoted by the BBC as explaining ‘I am only human’ which might be the ultimate fall back excuse. He reportedly added: “Yes, one day I do want to run for prime minister.”