Socially Acceptable Excuses — Part III

British philosopher Bertrand Russell, famously conjugated the verb “to be” this way:

I am firm.
You are obstinate.
He is a pig-headed fool.

And so we begin Part III of our ongoing series that began last January with When Cultural Difference is Used As An Excuse .


In Part II, last week, we touched on the difference between justifications — those defenses used in a “lesser of two evils” scenario, self-defense being probably the most well-known — and excuses, with “Affluenza” being the most recent.

Today, we’ll focus on “excuses” and how we come to choose them. The INSANITY defense is one we recognize. It holds that, at the time of the crime, the person did not appreciate the nature or quality or wrongfulness of the acts “by reason of his/her insanity.” It’s one of a number of defenses under the umbrella term, diminished capacity.

AFFLUENZA claims the same “diminished capacity.”

… an inability to understand the consequences of one’s actions because of a culture based on financial privilege.


I wandered aimlessly for a few days, trying to make sense of it all.

Finally, I returned to the literature of Attribution Theory, which formed the basis of my master’s thesis, The Relationship Between Resources and Responsibility, thirty-four years ago.

And in the process, I got a better understanding of this “culture of affluence.” I hope you will too.

I’ll admit, this post is a bit dense, far more serious than most of my posts have been. If you find it rough going, try just reading the highlighted parts.  That ought to get you through.

Are you READY?

At its core, Attribution Theory says that, try as we might not to, we judge people every day. We see behavior, and immediately make an inference. That yawn? The lip quiver, the raised eyebrow, the passionate denial? We want explanations.

[Attribution Theory, the “attribution of responsibility,” addresses our desire to praise people too.  But for this series, I’ll stay with the judgments of blame.]

“You Americans ask ‘why’ all the time.”
(from At Home on the Kazakh Steppe)

It’s hard to sit with ambiguity. For some, it’s next to impossible. We do not like gaps in our reality. So, we fill those gaps in as best we can. We make assumptions, draw conclusions, anything to make sense out of mystery. It’s hard to sit with “not knowing.”


Fritz Heider, a granddaddy of Attribution Theory and a social psychologist in the 1950s and ’60s, came up with a loose dichotomy of Internal vs. External causation and his more fleshed out “Five Levels of Responsibility.”


[learn_more caption=”Fritz Heider’s Five Levels of Responsibility”]

1. Association. This is the broadest level. For some, the friends who allowed Ethan Couch to drive drunk could also be held responsible at this level. His parents too. “Guilt by association.”

2. Causality. This is the accident.  The six year old DID cause the  milk to be spilled. Ethan Couch DID drive the vehicle that ran over four people standing nearby; he pled guilty.

3. Justifiability. We spent some time last week on the idea of justifiable homicide, the “lesser of two evils.”  No one has made the claim that this accident was in any way justifiable.

4. Foreseeability. There is a term called “reckless homicide,” otherwise known as “manslaughter.” It comes into play when the consequences of an accident could have been foreseen.

5. Intentionality. Here is where“premeditated homicide,” otherwise known as murder, resides. The gangland slaying, the mob boss hit, the serial killer, the stalker.  Geeeesh, this is depressing; there are so many.

Ethan Couch was charged with four counts of “intoxication manslaughter,” which puts him squarely in the Foreseeability level.  He SHOULD HAVE seen the consequences of his actions.

[A small caveat here: I do not know how the state of Texas (each jurisdiction fine tunes these terms to their discretion) weighs the intoxication part vis a vis the manslaughter part.  Not my area at all. Which is fine, since we’re dealing more with the court of public opinion than the actual legal terminology.] [/learn_more]


I keep trying to find a situation that does NOT fit into one of his five levels. For that, Fritz Heider remains one of my heroes. But his introduction of the “Internal vs. External” dichotomy of causation turned out to be even more helpful to me. Many social psychologists since have fine tuned it.


Internal vs. External Attributions: When bias clouds our judgment

When we judge another’s motives, like in the Ethan Couch case, we move past Sergeant Joe Friday’s dispassionate “Just the facts, ma’am,” and enter the realm of values, the “shoulds.”

  • Ethan should have known better.
  • His parents should have taught him better.
  • He should have gotten what he deserved.


It’s easy for bias to shade our judgment. Consider Heider’s claim that all our judgments involve our making a choice between

  • personal, “dispositional” (Internal control) and
  • environmental, “situational,” (External control).


What do we control and what do others control? That is the question.

It turns out, we answer it quite differently, depending on whether we’re talking about ourself or someone else.  Remember this?

I am sparkling,
You are unusually talkative.
He is drunk.


In our individualistic Western culture, we weigh the personal (internal) attributes of the actor — the traits, abilities, character, personality, disposition — over the situational (external) ones — fate, luck, coercion, culture, nature. At least when we are talking of someone else’s failures.

Whether it’s a police officer’s callous reaction that the rape victim was “asking for it,” the football coach’s analysis that a player missed a tackle because he didn’t try hard enough, or parents’ assumption that the crumpled fender on the family car is due to their son’s carelessness, we assume that people are responsible for the things that happen to them. That is our individualistic culture at work.

What I find  really interesting is that we, the observers in these hypothetical scenarios, do the opposite when it’s our own failures we are judging. AND, we weigh the situational (external) attributes more heavily when talking of someone else’s successes.


I am a gourmet.
You are a gourmand.
She has both feet in the trough.


The naive social psychologist in me sees other biases at work as we look at the case of Ethan Couch.  Here’s another one, called The Just World Hypothesis: people get what they deserve.  Or should.

Now, that is not to say Couch doesn’t deserve our disdain (I’m as prone to wanting a just world as anyone). But it is to say that the “spoiled brat” explanations are easy.  And so we stop looking for the rest of the story.

Here are two more little ditties, inspired by our current political discourse:

I have reconsidered.
You have changed your mind.

He has gone back on his word.


I am righteously indignant.
You are annoyed.

He is making a fuss about nothing. 


Knowing that we, the naive observers, have these biases, let’s consider the findings from those studying the affluent end of the social class continuum in the US. The earliest article I found was published in Family Processes in 1985 (Dec 24 (4):461-72). The abstract includes these prescient sentences.

Great wealth has undoubted benefits, but it is not good for children. It distorts their functional relationship with the world, it belittles their own accomplishments, and it grotesquely amplifies their sense of what is good enough.

[learn_more caption=”The 1990s brought a few more articles: “]

1991. Psychoanalytic understanding and treatment of the very rich. Journal of American Academy of Psychoanalysis.

1993. The Dark Side of the American Dream: correlates of financial success as a central life aspiration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. [/learn_more]

Fast forward to the early 21st century. Suniya Luthar, Professor Emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College (previously on the faculty at Yale University’s Department of Psychiatry and the Yale Child Study Center) studied adolescents in affluent communities.

Luthar found that

children growing up amidst great affluence, particularly teens, experience rising levels of substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. She also found increased incidences of cheating and stealing.

Her explanation?  She points to two causes:

  • isolation or disconnection from parents, and the
  • unrelenting pressure to achieve
Thanks to Getty Images
Thanks to Getty Images    LOOK FAMILIAR?


Clearly, we have a problem.

As the wealthy of this country get even wealthier, we are producing a second generation of citizens unable to fulfill the basic requirement of membership in a society: the ability to participate in a social contract.  

It distorts their functional relationship with the world, 

Pair that with our willingness to settle for these “dispositional, personal, individualistic” explanations, and we fail to address the larger, cultural, systemic problem.


NEXT WEEK: Our last look at Culture as an Excuse:  Part IV: Rape Culture

 HOW ABOUT YOU? How would you describe this “larger, cultural, systemic problem?”

3 Responses

  1. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    Janet, you are exploring, sparking, and posing some interesting questions. At the same time, I think you’re perhaps combining or conflating some ideas–“excuses” vs. legal defenses. These are not necessarily the same thing, especially as you are titling this “Socially Acceptable Excuses” (which to me sounds like “Sorry, I can’t attend your party because I have a previous engagement). 🙂 “Society” may accept or disagree with ideas or defenses that come up in court or that are tried by a defense team, but it is the role of the attorney to provide the best defense he or she can. A judge or jury might decide something that people outside of the court do not agree with. I haven’t followed the “affluenza” defense in detail, but it may be more complicated than is generally stated, as was the “Twinkie Defense.”

    I don’t know that affluence is actually a problem with young people who cannot relate to the world around them. Haven’t there always been affluent people, and haven’t some of them gone on to become reformers? One might argue that people who have wealth and education might be more able to lead reforms because they are not intent upon finding the next month’s rent and feeding their children. That said, I have seen some people and places that seem to feel entitled, and who lack empathy. And obviously there are societies where people get used to and tolerate injustice toward others, either because they themselves benefit or because it is dangerous to protest–I think of slavery in this country, as well as many totalitarian countries.

  2. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Interesting you bring up the Twinkie defense, Merril. I’d actually gotten bogged down with that one while I was putting this post together. I deleted it in the final read through because it was a media-created term, not actually used by the defense team. White’s defense was one of Clinical Depression and his attorney used his eating of Twinkies as evidence of this former health-food nut “” being depressed. It seemed a digression. AND, it turns out, the psychologist who mentioned “affluenza” how regrets his use of the term; the media latched onto it (bloggers did too) just like they did with Twinkies.

    But this “culture of affluence” as a subject of study is real. Entitlement seems its catchword. There’s not a lot new; no one seems to have picked up where Luther left off in her research, and she’s now moved on to other topics. But no one has negated any of the findings on affluence and its corresponding troubles since they began to be published in the mid 80s, either.

    The bigger problem for me with this post is that I decided rather late to focus on HOW we make decisions (specifically, judgments of responsibility) rather than provide the list of ones we ( actually I ) get prickly over. That’s not what I promised initially. It grew into one of those “darlings” I should just have killed off.

    C’est la vie. And So It Goes. 🙂

    But thanks for weighing in. On to next week’s post on the culture of rape. If writing this last one got me depressed (though not enough to eat Twinkies), writing this next one is doubly so. I prefer thinking of “my culture” as being of one sort, all of us in this together. Identifying now a second “subculture” that is so very different from “my way” is unsettling at best. So much easier to read and write about rape culture in distant lands, rather than on my own college campuses and sports arenas in my own backyard.

    Thanks again.

  3. […] As An Excuse, then The Culture of Affluence on February 10, Socially Acceptable Excuses, on February 17, and  ended with Culture as an Excuse: The Culture of Rape  on February 24, […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a blog you'd like to share? I use CommentLuv Click here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.