Culture 3 min read

Researchers Explain What Makes A Good Excuse Work

Not all excuses are effective enough to convince other people. A team of researchers explained what is deemed as a good excuse and why it works.

geralt / Pixabay

geralt / Pixabay

Ever wondered what it means to make a good excuse?

We’ve all made excuses for our poor behavior in the past. Whether it’s to escape the consequence of an act or make it more socially acceptable, we are continually seeking to justify actions that we’re not proud of.

Excuses come in various forms, tiredness, work deadline, stress, poverty, ignorance, or even a wailing infant. There’s just one question: what makes an excuse plausible?

In their latest publication, researchers at Cambridge University tried to provide an answer to this question. According to the paper, excuses are permissible when they show that our underlying moral intention is adequate – even though we may have acted wrongly.

Past studies have not explored the unifying factor behind our common excuses, until now. The recent Cambridge research suggests that the key is to understand the moral adequacy of the intention.

Let’s break it down, shall we?

How Intentions Make Good Excuse

We can define intention as plans for action. That means, when your moral intentions are adequate, your plans for action are also automatically sound.

In making an excuse, you’re saying that your planned action is morally right, but something went wrong. For example, you couldn’t meet a deadline because you were stressed.

With this recent study, we now have – for the first time – a unified account of excuses. The researchers are calling it the Good Intention Account, and it argues that our daily excuses are mostly the same as those offered in court.

Sounds a bit off, right?

Here’s the thing; lawyers are known to appeal to provocation or duress in defense of their client. In such a case, they’re claiming that while the client may have broken the law, his or her intention was morally adequate.

For reasons that vary from fear to anger, the client was unable to act on the morally adequate intention.

Speaking about the study, Cambridge University philosopher, Paulina Sliwa said:

“A good excuse needs to make plausible that your intention was morally adequate – but something beyond your control prevented you from translating it into action. That’s why considerations like the following often work: I am sorry for forgetting the appointment – I had a terrible migraine. It indicates an adequate underlying moral motivation that was thwarted by external circumstances.”

The researcher further explained what counts as a lousy excuse. According to Sliwa, appeal to the weakness of will or immoral things won’t work.

For example, sentences like ‘I just couldn’t resist‘ or ‘it was too tempting‘ don’t work because they are bad excuses.

There’s a Limit

With that said, the researchers believe that appealing to excuses has its limit.

Sliwa noted:

“Successful excuses can mitigate our blame, but they don’t get us off the hook completely. Saying we were tired or stressed doesn’t absolve us from moral responsibility completely, though they do change others’ perceptions of what we owe to make up for it and how the offended party should feel about our wrongdoing.”

That means, every time we make excuses for our actions, we’re trying to negotiate a favorable outcome. Aside from trying to reduce the anger, resentment, or punishment, we also want to know how much we need to apologize or compensate.

Perhaps, that’s the reason we continue to make excuses in the first place.

Read More: Why People Choose To Donate Time Rather Than Money

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Sumbo Bello

Sumbo Bello is a creative writer who enjoys creating data-driven content for news sites. In his spare time, he plays basketball and listens to Coldplay.

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