When people are asked why they did a certain thing, their answer usually involves a causal attribution: they attribute a cause to their behaviour by describing what they believe brought about the behaviour, or they give a reason for their behaviour by describing what they were trying to achieve through that behaviour [...].

Weiner and colleagues (1987) define excuses as those explanations that involve

  • dimensions of externality (cause outside the person),
  • uncontrollability (cause beyond the person’s control) and
  • unintentionality (the person did not mean to enact the behaviour).

In other words, excuse making is ‘the process of shifting causal attributions for negative personal outcomes from sources that are relatively more central to the person’s sense of self to sources that are relatively less central’ (Snyder & Higgins, 1988, p. 23).

A wide variety of research studies, ranging from laboratory-based experiments to field-based ethnographies, indicate that modern Western individuals tend to formulate post hoc excuses and justifications when they do something that is perceived to be offensive (Snyder & Higgins, 1988; Zuckerman, 1979).


In almost every such study, it is found that people will seek to excuse these behaviours by seeking out external, unstable and specific causes, rather than internalizing personal responsibility. In other words, when we humans do bad things, we typically say, ‘But it wasn’t my fault’!

Faced with such a robust correlation between offending and excuse making, [..] it is no surprise that social theorists have presumed the two processes may be causally related. What is surprising, however, has been the assumption regarding causal direction.

Rather than arguing that offending leads to excuse making, a variety of social scientific theories have posited that the relationship is the other way around: excuse making causes – or atleast allows for – offending.


Sykes &Matza (1957, p. 666) [...] identify five neutralization techniques that allow offenders to engage in wrongdoing without suffering from pangs of guilt:

  • denial of responsibility,
  • denial of injury,
  • denial of the victim,
  • condemnation of condemners and
  • the appeal to higher loyalties.

They argue that ‘It is by learning these techniques that the juvenile becomes delinquent’.

More recently, Bandura (1990) developed a similar theory of moral disengagement involving the following techniques for avoiding self-sanction:

  • displacementof responsibility,
  • diffusion of responsibility,
  • distorting the consequences of an action,
  • dehumanizing the victim and
  • assuming the role of victim for one’s self.

In their multi-volume work The Criminal Personality, psychiatrists Yochelson and Samenow (1977) listed 52 ‘thinking errors’ associated with violence and criminality.


This notion of criminal thinking styles is well summarized by Sharp (2000) in his book Changing Criminal Thinking: Criminal behavior is the result of erroneous thinking.

  • Criminals’ thinking leads to their feelings,
  • their feelings lead to their behavior, and
  • their behavior reaffirms their thinking.

Touse the words of Alcoholics Anonymous, the criminal is afflicted with ‘stinking thinking,’ which includes

  • rationalizing,
  • justifying,
  • excuse-making,
  • blaming,
  • accusing, and
  • being avictim. (p.2)


Still, nowhere has the notion of the criminogenic nature of excuse making had greater influence than the applied world of offender treatment, where excuses and justifications are often assigned the specialist label of cognitive distortion.

In his classicarticle on deviance disavowal, McCaghy (1968) wrote

  • ‘Of primary importance to therapists is that offenders assume full responsibility for their behaviour without relying on alcohol or other factors as rationalizations’ (p. 47).

This concern with ‘taking responsibility’ and not making excuses still characterizes therapeutic efforts with convicted offenders of all types (but particularly sexual and violent offenders).

It is consistently recommended in the treatment literature that a primary purpose of a sex offender group is

  • ‘to identify and confront cognitive distortions, rationalizations andexcuses for offending’ (Salter, 1988, p. 114).

The goal of such confrontations is to encourage offenders to replace externalized accounts with ‘internal, stable, global attributions of cause’ (Beech & Mann, 2002, p. 265).

In Anna Salter’s (1988) influential treatment handbook for working with sex offenders, for instance, she writes:

  • Many offenders admit the actual behaviours : : : and accept their seriousness, but deny responsibility for them : : : [...]
    Careful listening to their descriptions of the abuse will detect constant externalization. Blame is placed on
    • their wife’s nagging,
    • their wives’ lack of interest in sex,
    • their own problems at work,
    • provocation by the child,
    • lack of attention and care from the world in general,
    • excessive care and attention from the child : : : and
    • on their own emotional loneliness.
  • Such offenders find numerous excuses for their behaviour, mostly external but also frequently internal [...]. These excuses have the cumulative effect of reducing offender responsibility. (pp. 107–108)

Salter continues to explain that the goal of therapy must be to eliminate all external explanations and even those internal explanations that are unstable, uncontrollable and specific in nature (e.g. blaming ‘momentary madness’):

  • ‘Through therapy, they : : : will admit the offences and the seriousness of the behaviours and assume the responsibility for them’ (p. 110).

Her advice to those running sexual offender groups is to establish peer confrontation, with external, unstable attributions being a specific focus for this type of interaction [...].

As a result of this theoretical assumption, the individual’s willingness to adjust his or her account in these ways has serious consequences.

Whether or not one takes responsibility for his or her crime can determine

  • a person’s access to and ability to complete state-required treatment programmes [...],
  • one’s eligibility for parole [...] and even [...]
  • whether a person will be allowed to live. [...]

It is therefore important to ensure that there is sound evidence that excuse-making is indeed criminogenic, and that taking responsibility is linked to a reduction in recidivism risk.

This review addresses these and related questions regarding offender rationalizations. 

[... ... ...]

The overall argument is that criminological psychology may be guilty of committing something akin to the ‘fundamental attribution error’ [...]

That is, many of the rationalizations and minimizations offered by offenders may be situational rather than dispositional [...]

When challenged about having done something wrong, all of us reasonably account for our own actions as being influenced by multiple, external and internal factors. Yet, we pathologize prisoners and probationers for doing the same thing. In everyday use, excuses are employed as an

  • ‘aligning action indicating to the audience that the actor is aligned with the social order even though he or she has violated it’ [...]

Pathologizing such aligning techniques when used by criminal justice clients places them in a no-win situation:

  • If they make excuses for what they did, they are deemed to be criminal types who engage in criminal thinking.
  • If, however, they were to take ful lresponsibility for their offences – claiming they committed some awful offence purely ‘because they wanted to’ and because that is the ‘type of person’ they are – then they are, by definition, criminal types as well.

Our argument is not that treatment providers should ignore cognition or issues of self-efficacy in promoting change. Far from it. We argue only that as a discipline, we need

  • ‘more sophisticated views of denial and the related motivations to avoid versus acceptresponsibility’ (Schneider & Wright, 2004, p. 16).