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“I’m so sorry I’m late! Traffic was terrible!” “No, I can’t make it to the meeting. I have a dentist appointment.” “Actually, I won’t be at the PTA fundraiser next week. We’re going out of town.” Do any of these sound familiar? Of course, they do. Excuses are part of everyone’s daily life. You make excuses about why you are late to work, to get yourself out of unpleasant commitments and to dodge spending time with people you like about as much as a root canal but cannot cut out of your life entirely. As a general rule, no one thinks twice about offering up an excuse when they either do not want to do something or when they have done a minor wrong. Even children know that the right excuse or perfectly worded false explanation will get them out of a whole lot of trouble. Society as a whole seems to function on the idea that excuses are a reasonable and acceptable part of life so long as you do not get caught offering up a poor excuse or one that is a flagrant lie. This tendency of society to accept excuses and justifications, however, does nothing good for the overall culture’s morality. In fact, excuses are killing your conscience.

Your conscience serves as your guardrails and keeps you on the path of morality. When you start to stray from what you know is right, your conscience is the prickle of unease or the stab of uncertainty you feel before you take action. Your conscience is also the heavy guilt you feel after doing something you know to be wrong and avoiding apologizing or otherwise making things right with the person you have wronged. Most people develop their conscience when they are children and are taught morality and ethics by their family. As they age, their conscience shifts and grows. They may end up disagreeing with their family on certain issues based on their own experiences and observations. In many ways, the fact that a person’s conscience becomes more unique and individualistic is a good thing. Without that development, morality and ethics would never move forward. Humanity would still be stuck thinking that the answer to most interpersonal issues was some variant of “off with their head!” Sometimes, however, that individual development of a person’s conscience causes trouble. A person may fall in with a bad crowd and become convinced that things that are wrong are actually perfectly acceptable. Most people successfully avoid such traps, but that does not mean that they do not dull their conscience in their own way as they age. One of the main ways they end up doing this is by making excuses.

Excuses in and of themselves are a sign that you think you did something wrong. If you think what you did was perfectly acceptable and right, you would not bother to explain it. Your actions would speak for themselves. The only time people feel the need to defend their actions is when they are either aware that what they did was wrong or are forced to question their decisions. 

No one wants to think or admit that they have done something wrong. As such, people become experts at making excuses both to themselves and to others. A student who cheats on a test knows that what they are doing is wrong. Even if they do not get caught, they still have to explain their actions to themselves. This is where the justifications and excuses begin. The student tells themselves that cheating was acceptable because they are being forced to take this class, and remembering which characters survived “Romeo and Juliet” is useless information. They brush it aside by thinking about how they are normally very studious, but they were unable to study for this test because they were traveling for a sports game or had to comfort a friend. These excuses silence the prickling of guilt from their conscience. Over time, those excuses muffle their conscience entirely, and they no longer feel guilty or uneasy about cheating. 

Handing excuses to friends about why you were late to dinner desensitizes your conscience to another problem, one inherent in all excuses — lying. Every time you give an excuse, you are lying. Maybe you did run into a bit of traffic on the way to dinner, but that is not why you were late. You were late because you did not leave early enough to get there on time. Little by little, you get comfortable dealing with small lies. This then makes it easier for you to rationalize telling larger lies or telling lies more often. Slowly but surely, you begin to subconsciously believe that lying is acceptable.

This tendency for small things to make big things more acceptable is called Foot in the Door Theorem in psychology. It is a very real phenomenon that has been used with devastating effect to convince people to do everything from buying cars that are too expensive to committing war crimes. It is also very difficult to overcome even if you realize what is happening. 

The final way that excuses tend to kill your conscience is that they are a little too good at their jobs. Excuses are, at their core, meant to get you out of trouble. A claim that traffic was bad keeps your boss from being angry at you for being late. A false apology about having a prior commitment means your friend is not hurt by the fact that you cannot stand the idea of attending her witch of a sister’s baby shower. Excuses are excellent at keeping you from suffering the consequences of your actions, but consequences are often the jolt back to reality that you need. If you have come to think, however subconsciously, that lying is acceptable, getting called out for a lie in public may suddenly remind you that no, lying is not acceptable. Without those consequences, however, the world appears to be upholding your belief that your wrong behavior is actually right. If this goes on long enough, when you do inevitably end up in a situation where your standard excuse is not enough and you suffer the consequences, you think that the person calling you out is crazy rather than you being at fault.

Excuses are common in daily life, but that does not mean it is a good idea to continue making them whenever you make a mistake. Instead, own up to what you did and correct the problem. Your conscience will thank you, as will your brain. After all, it is easier to offer an apology once than it is to have to come up with a believable new excuse every day.

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