In one example, the subjects in the study gave their opinions of a fictional quarterback who failed to complete a last-second pass and accused his offensive line of bad blocking, causing him to rush his throw. Most perceived the quarterback as narcissistic, deceitful, ineffective and generally bereft of character. But when the subjects were told that the quarterback took responsibility for his error, they rated him more favorably.
In another case, the subjects evaluated a printing company employee who claimed that a traffic jam made him late for an important meeting. When the study participants were told that other workers had also been delayed, they rated the employee favorably. But they were much harsher when informed that the other workers had reported the same traffic jam but still arrived on time.
In still another example, the subjects negatively rated an overweight student who excused herself from exercise class because it was too embarrassing. But the subjects' views improved when the student vowed to take a less strenuous class to improve her health and appearance.
Politicians and corporate executives, Dr. Schlenker said, often favor justifications over outright excuses: They admit responsibility but minimize their blame.
"In power positions, people tend to use excuses much more subtly and in ways that don't undermine their power and control of the situation," he said. "An excuse suggests less personal control."
Thus, Bill Clinton's insistence that what he had with Monica Lewinsky was not sex "as I define it." And the assurances given by David N. Dinkins, the former mayor of New York, about his failure to pay taxes: "I haven't committed a crime," Mr. Dinkins said. "What I did was fail to comply with the law."
Not every self-acquitting instinct is bad. Excuses can help people keep trying in the face failure: blaming a poor performance on lack of sleep allows more possibility for change than attributing it to an overall lack of skill or intelligence.
But the short-term gain of self-deception, Dr. Schlenker and other experts said, is rarely worth the long-term cost.
(Cast Blame, Watch It Boomerang! NYT)