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
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
Posing the question ‘Do excuses work?’ Snyder and Higgins (1988)
Those who assume full responsibility for their failings, on the other
will be most at risk when faced with unfortunate circumstances, such
as the loss of a job
Seligman (1991) writes: For non-depressives,
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
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.
A similar interactive process appears to operate even in the case of
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
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
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
Moreover, there are some theoretical reasons for suspecting that, in
Theoretically, offender neutralizations might be understood as
Shame is a rich, but dangerous emotion and, in general, more research
is needed to
In terms of the rehabilitation process, in some cases, it may be
better for an
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
Hood and colleagues explain this finding by arguing:
Indeed, Lemert was clear on this point in his formulation of primary
Hanson and Wallace-Capretta (2000) found some support for this
hypothesis in their
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
Although such things do not make it right to commit crimes, people really are influenced
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
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
Alternatively, she argues, treatment discourse worked to
decontextualize inmates’ past
Indeed, Fox writes, the following was listed as a thinking
error in a workbook for a
This of course becomes something of a catch-22 for treatment participants –
Like the fundamental attribution error itself, this misattribution is fully understandable.
Those individuals who have never committed a certain offence
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. [...]