Suppose one behaves badly, even criminally, or in a way that has negative consequences. To “explain” this behavior is to provide details about its causes, whereas to “excuse” this behavior is to remove one’s blame or responsibility for having behaved that way.
Logically and semantically these are separate constructs. Yes, depending on the “details” in the explanation, one might try to use those details to weasel out of responsibility (justifiably or otherwise). But “explaining” does not mean “excusing” by definition. Explanations for behavior are not necessarily excuses.
In my earlier post on the fundamental attribution error (FAE; aka “the big one”), I provided the example of someone shouting at you. The two possible causes I highlighted were that the shouter was mean or under extreme stress (of course it could be both). Does either explanation excuse the shouter for making you feel bad or scared or annoyed (if you felt that way)?
Well, that’s really your call, but even with stressful circumstances, my opinion is that generally someone should not take their stress out on you by shouting. Stressful circumstances can help explain the shouting behavior but do not necessarily excuse it.
What do you think? If someone strongly raises their voice to you, are there any circumstances under which you would consider excusing this individual? Might it depend on what they’re saying or who it is (friend, parent, stranger,…)? (I know some people might just not think shouting is a big deal.)
What if someone gossips about you behind your back? What if someone punches you? What if another driver cuts you off and causes an accident? Are there any circumstances under which you would consider excusing these individuals?
That’s really your call. To blame or not to blame. To sue or let it go.
But whether to excuse or not is a separate issue from explaining these bad behaviors. A bad behavior can have a host of causes, none or all of which may excuse it. To decide whether to blame or get upset or file charges, it might be useful to know the details about the potential causes, but that does not mean that explaining and excusing are the same things.
Okay, here’s my point…
Social psychologists (and other social scientists) write articles and books and occasionally do public radio in which they talk about the possible situational causes behind many bad behaviors out there. The bad behaviors can include…
If you’ve been bullied, discriminated against, mugged, cheated on, or the victim (or related to a victim) of terrorism or some other massive brutality, it might be hard to listen to a social psychologist go on and on about situational causes. I think most social psychologists are sensitive to victims’ perspectives, but it might not always sound that way, especially if you’re just reading a book chapter.
According to research, bullies might actually be victims themselves. Those who discriminate might just be following company rules without full awareness of ultimate effects. Some crimes can be caused by poverty. Infidelity can reflect a complicated interpersonal history. The 911 attacks could have been partly due to U.S. foreign policy. (If any reader is starting to get upset at me, please hold on and keep reading [and I’m sorry]…)
Those who murdered Jewish people during the holocaust might have been influenced by strong social and socio-cultural forces. Phillip Zimbardo (2007) wrote an entire book on systemic and situational causes for evil and argued that even good people can turn bad under the right circumstances.
Am I excusing any of these bad behaviors by citing potential situational causes? No. Absolutely not. Explaining does not mean excusing.
Am I suggesting that bullies, discriminators, muggers, cheaters, terrorists, or murderers should not be held accountable? OMG. Of course not.
Are any of these other authors excusing any of these bad behaviors? No – I really don’t think so. And social psychologists know that bad behaviors can be caused by both situational and dispositional causes. One who performs a bad behavior can be both a bad person and under extreme and complicated circumstances. It’s usually not a clear case of one or the other (although most people underestimate situational causes, in the FAE).
But why try to find all these situational causes if not to somehow reduce the responsibility of the individuals involved?
ANSWER: To reduce the occurrence of these bad behaviors. Understanding bad behaviors can help to prevent them or help you to steer clear of them. Better understanding might also help us to help the victims of bad behaviors.
But if we get upset when these potential situational explanations are mentioned for bad behaviors, then we are less likely to experience the benefits. We would be less likely to listen, less likely to bring those speakers to campus, less likely to fund that research, etc…
“People resist what social psychologists have to say about nasty and evil behavior, and even express hostility toward it, because social psychological explanations seem to them to condone bad behavior and exonerate wrongdoers” (Newman & Bakina, 2009, p. 257, citing Miller and colleagues, 2002).
Slogan #2 (explaining ≠ excusing) is tough but so important. (See https://parbsanonymous.wordpress.com/slogans/)
Social psychologists are not exonerating wrongdoers.
And if you have a friend who likes to play social psychologist when you complain about the bully at work, this friend too might just be an explainer.
Maybe you should be allowed to vent a while before having to undertake an analysis of possible causes for a bully’s bad behavior. Many friends get that and will just nod their heads or even offer to punch out your nasty co-worker.
But even if your friend searches for multiple causes and doesn’t just listen, that doesn’t mean that your friend is excusing this bad behavior. That doesn’t mean that your friend is not on your side.
Newman, L. S., & Bakina, D. A. (2009). Do people resist social-psychological perspectives on wrongdoing? Reactions to dispositional, situational, and interactionist explanations. Social Influence, 4, 256-273.
Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. New York: Random House.