Polygraph Excuses, Polygraph, Interview, Interview, Excuses, Excuses
By George Baranowski
Excuses have a bad image. I remember that old cartoon strip “Peanuts” when Lucy blamed her missed fly balls on the “Sun, the moon, the wind, the stars” and even some kind of toxic substances in her baseball glove. We laugh at this light side of excuse-making, that kind of preserves the point of view that excuses basically are silly, even transparent and a weak ploy that people use. Although we sense that there is much more to excuses, we are kind of reluctant to see them in any serious, detailed way. However, just sitting back and observing over the years has convinced me that it is not only much more common than generally realized, but that it plays a central Words of Wisdom Experience Education role in how we get along in life, both with ourselves, with others, and especially those we interview and test.
I’ve been interested by the dilemma, I guess we could call it human dilemma of accountability, or there are times I’ve called it fallibility. I’m sure its related to my years in criminal investigations and polygraph examinations which interact with human personalities. Let’s face it, we all make mistakes one kind or another (except for maybe Mike Gougler…. that’s a joke) and find ourselves in predicaments that we didn’t really need. Like something in which we did not perform well. Something should be done with these disappointing outcomes so they don’t restrict and intimidate us: That something often takes the form of, “The excuse.”
Excuse-making has a few basic components. First, most people want to maintain a positive image of themselves. While psychologists I’m sure would have much more psychological positions about this, than our other nicer more scientific motives underlying the way people behave, self-esteem is in my belief, the main driving force, probably in most of us.
Given this tendency, excuses are sparked by any situation that links a person to a bad performance, perhaps an action or an activity that does not meet either the individual’s or society’s standards. The more closely a person is linked to a bad performance, and the more negatively that performance is regarded, the greater the probability of excuse-making. People begin to explain or act in ways that lessen the negative implications or that bad performance in their own eyes, in the judgement of others, or both.
From my observations, excuse-making takes three general routes: First, “I didn’t do it.” Second, “It’s not really so bad.” And third, “Yes, but…” Since people seem to be linked to their poor performances by information (Which we know it as ‘Physical Evidence’),” I didn’t do it” excuses aim to sever the caused condition. We’ve experienced those we have interviewed over the years who frequently strike that unbelievable pose and respond with, “Who me?”
If he or she is not responsible of course, the obvious suggestion is someone else must be, and they feel it helps to give some clues as to who they want to propose is the “Real culprit.” They even become helpful witnesses willing to “Testify” regarding the culpability of someone else—anyone else.
I live in Northern Indiana just about an hour’s drive from Chicago, and because of that many of our residents are Chicago sports fans, and it’s interesting how all our fans quickly shift from basking in reflected glory to then cutting off from reflected failure. When the Cubs, Bears, Bulls or Blackhawks win, you’ll hear statements like, “We won!” But the losses are reported as, “They lost.”
If excuse-makers cannot sever the ties to the bad performance, and if they must admit “I did it,” then they must somehow make it sound, “Not so bad.” So here we see a different maneuver, behavior aimed as softening, lightening and generally repackaging the bad act in a more positive light.
The simplest repackaging strategy that I’ve seen is to consciously or unconsciously hide from yourself the undesirable consequences of your actions. Over those years of talking to witnesses of violent crimes to obtain information, witnesses offered excuses rather than aid to assaults they witnessed. Most said things like, “I didn’t really know what happened,” while others said things like “It wasn’t serious” and others would give excuses like “Gosh, I didn’t hear a thing,” or “I didn’t know she needed help”. Many things obvious to others seem to “Escape the notice” of the excuse-makers. (I admit I’ve heard myself saying at home to Paula, “I didn’t know the garbage was ready to be taken out” well, I didn’t use that one all the time.)
If excuse-makers accept responsibility like “I did it” and concede further, like “Yeah, and it was bad…” they seem to need excuses of the “Yes, but…” variety. These are excuses to weaken the accountability link by introducing additional information that reduces the person’s sense of responsibility for the criminal performance. By playing on the familiar notion of extenuating circumstances. “Yes but…” excuses have hopes that tell the polygraph examiner that the excuse-maker shouldn’t be held totally accountable. In looking at all this, successful excuse-tellers sometimes blame their failure on “Bad luck, the difficulty of the task, divine intervention “Why is God doing this to me? That’s alternative facts; or, That’s just fake news.”)
Another excuse concept is projection, the process by which a person can hang this failure and deficiencies on other people, as a way to explain failures. One of the present polygraph examinations programs I’m involved in is the testing of adolescents who have been convicted of some form of child molestation, and in addition to being on probation, are placed in Residential Treatment facilities and into treatment that includes polygraph examinations. I have heard excuses that take on the form of statements as “Everyone else was doing it; My victim asked me to do it; I just did what I saw on television, the computer or the internet.”
There is another tactic that I’m sure we all have witnessed is to claim no, or a lack of intent. “I didn’t mean to do it” implies that some unforeseen circumstances took control just this once. It’s like that legal plea of temporary insanity, but I think that’s a more complex form of this kind of excuse. There’s another matter that I remember hearing about in a polygraph training session I attended about 20-years ago. What I remember was information that came from a study at a university which talked about excuses. In this study, after students were told they had failed a particular test, some research participants were hooked up to what they called “A device that monitored physiological reactions” and asked why they thought they had failed, and that these tests measured positive and negative feelings. For those participants who were told this device “Just merely measured physiological responses,” making excuses caused an expected decrease in negative feelings. The excuses apparently did their psychological work by protecting their egos. But for people who were told that the device was “A Polygraph, and a lie detector that measured their true feelings,” excuses increased their negative feelings. Some I remembered expressed their feelings of something like they were under scrutiny of the “All knowing machine.” The point I remembered from this study was that excuses may only serve to make us feel worse psychologically.
Although excuses and polygraph excuses sometimes backfire and excuse-making can become habitual and pathological, I believe they do serve a role for most people at a lot of times. It’s like it provides a way of handling some of life’s uncertainties. Normal excuses are often quite subtle and unrecognized even by the excuse-maker as well as their audience. Something like a degree of disability for example may nicely protect a person from a potential failure. In my youth, I still have many fond memories of those times I played in the Intra-City Baseball league, playing in the “Midget League” (Ages 12-13). My bandaged sprained wrist convinced me, and I suppose the crowd as well, that if I missed a ground ball hit to me, I wasn’t really a poor player, I was just “Temporarily hurt.” Thinking back about this however, I wonder now how long I wore that wrapping even after my wrist stopped hurting, just in case I missed another grounder. (By the way, I just turned 80 so my memory is not too good…..Well, OK yeah, that sounds like another excuse. Oh well.)
There is a position that many hold like, “Aren’t excuses always just lies?” In a way, I don’t think of them in that way. It’s true that by adopting an explanation that preserves positive self-images, I think that people are “Subjectively” biasing their interpretations of the world. But these biased interpretations are not always “Errors” or “Lies.” When there are no measuring devices, no yardsticks for measuring the “Truth” of different explanation of events, many explanations may fit the facts equally well. There often is not one black or white view of reality: some could be “Grey” interpretations.
The fact is regarding our work in polygraph testing and connected interviewing is that “Excuses work.” They serve to preserve a person’s self-image and reduce the stress associated with failures. Excuses make it okay to disclose that negative activity, and whether or not this polygraph excuse actually provides some form of justification in the eyes of the subject, the important focus is that we have an admission to the act or event under investigation. My thought here is “Let the excuses come.” The important thing is that this person giving the excuse also acknowledges the validity of the matter they are admitting to, regardless of the excuse, and that is the way I view it. Having said that, there will always be certain things for which individuals will be accountable. The inexcusable will and should remain inexcusable. But from the beginning of time we have pursued the personal and societal forgiveness that excuses bring. Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake, in a sense this biblical historic event, has in a sense, given birth to one of the frequently used justifications for some people, which is “The devil made me do it.” The point I’m making here is that let’s face it, “Excuses often lead to admissions, right?”