Engendering excuses – sex differences in making excuses

Jack C. Horn

Engendering excuses

We make excuses for many reasons, but the underlying drive is usually to save face by shifting or lessening our responsibility for what has happened. Psychologist C.R. Snyder and his colleagues have outlined three broad categories that include virtually all excuses:

I didn’t do it. We reduce our responsibility by breaking the link between us and what happened.

It wasn’t so bad. We reframe the action by somehow putting it in a more favorable light.

Yes but. . . . We trasnsform responsibility by pleading extenuating circumstances.

While nearly everyone uses all three types of excuses at various times depending on the situation (see “Excuses, Excuses,’ September 1984), researchers haven’t looked closely at whether men and women prefer one type to another when all are equally available. To study the question, Snyder and colleagues first had 108 college men and women read a story about a student who had received a poor grade on a midterm exam. The students then answered 12 questions that offered possible excuses that fell into the researchers’ three categories.

One question, for example, asked students how responsible the individual was for the grade, giving the students a chance to shift responsibility. Other questions asked what the grade was (forgetting the facts is a convenient way to reframe an action) and how important they thought grades were. This is another kind of reframing; if grades are unimportant, so is getting a bad grade. Excuses of the third kind, transforming responsibility, were offered by questions probing how much extenuating circumstances –such as the time spent preparing for other exams that week–excused the bad grade and whether the student should be allowed to do extra work to make it up.

Snyder and colleagues found that men were more likely to shift or reframe responsibility, while the women favored excuses that transformed it. In answer to the question about what grade the student had received, all of the women accurately reported that it was D. Five men reported grades from C to B . On the other hand, more women than men blamed the poor grade on other exams and though that the student should be given a chance to make up for it with extra work.

The researchers stress that their study is a first short step down a very long road. Other situations might elicit a different pattern of excuse-making and, whatever the situation, the “potential interactive effects of observer sex, transgressor sex and type of excuses given make it extremely difficult to unravel the issue of observer sex and excuses given by other people.’ At this point the researchers conclude, “Our admittedly naive conclusion is that both sexes do it, but “do it’ differently.’

Snyder and colleagues are at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. They presented their paper at the American Psychological Association meeting in Los Angeles.

COPYRIGHT 1986 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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