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Rethinking excuse-making and criminality

The inconsistencies in defining cognitive distortion and the lack of empirical evidence that these rationalizations precede offending suggest that the topic should be treated with more caution than it typically is.

In the following review, we present several arguments in favour of tolerating some level of excuse making among offenders. By this, we mean only reasons for shifting the focus of cognitive interventions away from individual excuses and toward other aspects of self-identity (beliefs, schemas, implicit theories, etc.) [...].

Is excuse-making normal?

Excuses and justifications enjoy the awkward position of being ‘universally condemned
while being universally used’ [...].

Central to the new notion of criminal thinking or the criminal personality is that, ‘Criminals do not think like law-abiding prosocial people’ (Sharp, 2000, p. 2). Yet, the psychological literature on excuse making is clear that taking full responsibility for every personal failing does not make a person normal, it makes them extraordinary – and possibly at risk of mental illness.

In his review of 38 studies, Zuckerman (1979) found substantial confirmation for the
idea that modern, Western adults make predominantly external attributions for our
failures and predominantly internal attributions for our successes. Moreover, one of the
most robust findings in cognitive psychology is that this excuse making for negative
events is both healthy and beneficial [...]. 

[... ...]

Posing the question ‘Do excuses work?’ Snyder and Higgins (1988) concluded that
excuse making is a highly adaptive mechanism for coping with stress, relieving anxiety
and maintaining self-esteem. Research suggests that excusing past mistakes even
enhances one’s sense of control over future challenges of the same nature [...].

Those who assume full responsibility for their failings, on the other hand, put
themselves at risk of suffering depression. In their ‘revised helplessness theory’ of
depression, Abramson, Seligman, and Teasdale (1978) argued that individuals who have
an explanatory style that invokes substantially

internal, stable and global attributions for negative life events
(and external, unstable and specific attributions for positive events)

will be most at risk when faced with unfortunate circumstances, such as the loss of a job
or a relationship breakup.

Seligman (1991) writes: For non-depressives,

failure events tend to be external, temporary, and specific, but
good events are personal, permanent, and pervasive.


People who display this sort of ‘beneffectance’ [...] or ‘self-enhancing biases’ [...] tend to be healthier [...] and perform better in school [...] in the work place [...] and in politics [...]  than those who do not think as optimistically.

Do listeners encourage excuses?

Rather than being dispositional, Weiner and colleagues (1987) described excuse making
as a product of negotiated reality [...]. That is, excuse makers and their audience collaborate to agree on a cause that is acceptable to both.

Through a series of experiments, Weiner and colleagues (1987) demonstrated that most listeners prefer accounts in which wrongdoers excuse or justify their offending behaviour. Accounts characterized by preference (I did it because I wanted to) and negligence (I did it because I didn’t think) made listeners angry; whereas the majority of excuses offered in these laboratory-based encounters were welcomed, believed and accepted [...].

Indeed, extensive research in social psychology demonstrates that the provision of excuses (or mitigating accounts) for one’s harmful actions can reduce conflict [...], preserve the speaker’s reputation [...] and reduce negative sanctioning [...].

Excuse making seems to convey a level of respect for the victim.

‘The very fact that the perpetrator thinks that the victim is due an explanation signals respect for the victim and tends to diminish the victim’s anger’ (Miller, 2001, p. 537; see also Bies, 1987).

A similar interactive process appears to operate even in the case of highly violent
crimes [...] When we feel an individual’s crime is the result of the offender’s circumstances we are more likely to advocate rehabilitative than punitive interventions [...].

Alternatively, offenders whose crimes are attributed to internal, stable and controllable causes are considered by most to be more dangerous and less treatable [...].

This is not true of every culture at every historical moment. In Japanese society, for
instance, full acceptance of responsibility, apology and repentance are both expected of
law breakers and rewarded with forgiveness and reintegration when deemed to be
authentic [...]. The same cannot be said of contemporary Western culture, where ex-offenders struggle to be both responsible and redeemable [...].

Does excuse-making predict recidivism?

Similar to the notion of victim empathy before it [...] theoretical assumptions about irresponsibility and excuse making have been strongly challenged by recent meta-analytic studies of the predictors of reoffending.

Metaanalyses by Hanson and Bussiere (1998) and especially Hanson and Morton-Bourgon (2005), for instance, suggest that responsibility taking has no consistent relationship to recidivism among sex offenders.

These striking results

‘could provide justification for novel approaches to treating and managing denying offenders, provide a rationale to support a change in standards of practice, or provide a basis for departing from established standards for approaches to the clinical problem of denial’ (Lund, 2000, p. 276).

Instead, critics of this research [...] point to the difficulties in interpreting these results, in particular because of the heterogeneity in the way that denial is measured across the different studies. [...]

Although these concerns are valid, it is still the case that no systematic review of the
literature, to date, has found conclusive evidence of a link between responsibility
taking and future recidivism (as opposed to the simple finding that offenders make
post hoc excuses).

Moreover, there are some theoretical reasons for suspecting that, in some cases
(although not all), the relationship between excuse making and recidivism may be in the
opposite direction
of what is implied by the cognitive distortion literature.

[... ...]

Theoretically, offender neutralizations might be understood as providing crucial
‘insulation from labelling’ (Covington, 1984, p. 621) or protection from the sorts of
stigmatizing shame that can lead to future offending (Braithwaite & Braithwaite, 2001).

Shame is a rich, but dangerous emotion and, in general, more research is needed to
understand better its role in criminal aetiology and reform. Still, the best theoretical
work on shame and crime, to date, suggests that different types of shame can both
increase and decrease risk for criminality, with stigmatizing shame being particularly
criminogenic (Braithwaite, 1989; Harris & Maruna, 2005).

In terms of the rehabilitation process, in some cases, it may be better for an
individual who has committed a crime to believe ‘I only did that because I was
drunk and I was badly provoked’ than to internalize the blame for the offence with
the seemingly dangerous attribution ‘I did it because I wanted to’ or ‘I did it because
that is the type of person I am’.

Individuals making such internal attributions may take responsibility for their offence, but they also show a shocking lack of social awareness and provide little evidence that they should be reintegrated or forgiven.

This suggestion is well articulated by Hood and colleagues (2002). Hood et al.’s study
found that offenders deemed to be in denial [...] by a parole board were less likely to
reoffend than those who took responsibility for their crimes [...].

Hood and colleagues explain this finding by arguing:

Some ‘deniers,’ when faced with the stigma of conviction and punishment may not accept their deviant sexual acts as a reflection of their ‘real self.’ Nor may they wish to associate with those they regard, unlike themselves, as ‘real’ sex offenders. It is possible that such persons may be less likely to become ‘secondary deviants,’ that is, persons who accept and seek to justify their sexual deviance (Hood et al., 2002, p. 387).

Indeed, Lemert was clear on this point in his formulation of primary and secondary

‘The deviations remain primary deviations or symptomatic and situational as long as they are rationalized’ (Lemert, 1951, p. 75 [...]). According to Lemert, an individual does not move into secondary deviation until she or he undergoes ‘a process of identification’ through which the deviant acts are ‘incorporated as part of the “me” of the individual’ (p. 75).


Hanson and Wallace-Capretta (2000) found some support for this hypothesis in their
study of the offending outcomes of 320 male batterers in a community treatment
programme. In the study, treatment clients responded to the 40 items that make up
Version 3 of the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding measure (Paulhus, 1984)
comprising two subscales: self-deception and impression management.

Contrary to expectations, those treatment clients who scored highly on these social desirability scales [... ....] were the least likely to reoffend as reported by their partners.


Perhaps a little creative self-deception (Taylor, 1989) is not always a bad thing if this helps to create a non-deviant real self for stigmatized individuals.

[... ... ... ... ...]

Are risk factors ever really external and unstable?

Lastly, it cannot be forgotten that some of the individuals who do not accept full
responsibility for their crimes may indeed have been influenced by external, unstable
circumstances. Leaving aside the obvious possibility of wrongful conviction [... ...] almost every criminal action is obviously a product of both internal and external factors.

Although such things do not make it right to commit crimes, people really are influenced

by their upbringing,
by others,
by drugs and alcohol,
by emotional pressure and
by contextual circumstances

to behave in various ways. It is ironic that these sorts of basic criminological understandings are deemed to be evidence of pathology, when offered by offenders themselves (Kendall & Pollack, 2003).

Process evaluations and discourse analyses of cognitive therapy encounters with
offenders in both the US [...] and the UK [...] demonstrate the frustrations inherent in this attribution error.

In an ethnographic study of one prison-based cognitive treatment programme, Kathryn Fox (1999a) found that the ‘somewhat sociological’ (p. 91) accounts used by prisoners to
explain their offences were rejected by therapists as examples of criminal thinking.

Alternatively, she argues, treatment discourse worked to decontextualize inmates’ past
actions, leaving the individual with little choice but to accept the dominant therapeutic
discourse of pathology and an ‘ideology of moral autonomy’ (Fox, 1999b, p. 442).

Indeed, Fox writes, the following was listed as a thinking error in a workbook for a
cognitive treatment programme for prisoners:

‘The criminal believes that he is a good and decent person. He rejects the thought that he is a criminal’ (cited in Fox, 1999b; see also chapter 10 of Samenow (1984)).

This of course becomes something of a catch-22 for treatment participants –

if they claim to be decent, that is proof that they are criminally minded;
if they admit to being criminally minded, that also is proof that they are criminally minded (see also Beech & Mann, 2002).

Like the fundamental attribution error itself, this misattribution is fully understandable.

Those individuals who have never committed a certain offence themselves,
can find the idea of someone making excuses for crimes such as rape, murder or
burglary to be abhorrent. It can be more comforting to believe that offences are the
product of bad people, not circumstances.

After all, if criminal acts can be committed by fundamentally good and decent people in bad circumstances, then even the best of us have the potential to commit such atrocities. That can be an unsettling thought.

After all, excuses can undermine the very foundations of criminal justice. If we are to punish (or arrest, convict, study, classify, etc.) a person as an offender, the individual needs at some level to be responsible for the crime. In the face of a body of social science work that exculpates offending behaviour by shifting blame to parents, schools, communities and culture (among other forces), there is no small comfort in having the individual him or herself claim full responsibility. [...]

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