On Psychology

Jewish World Review Aug. 19, 1999 / 8 Elul, 5759


Dr. Wade Horn

There's No Excuse for this Column

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

SO, HILLARY CLINTON believes that the reason why her husband has a taste for the ladies is that when he was "so young, barely four" he was "scarred by abuse" that occurred as a result of his being trapped "between his mother and grandmother." And anyway, she adds, "he is a very, very good man." Why, she goes on to ask, should his little indiscretions "negate everything he has done as a husband, a father, and a president?"

What's wrong with these statements is that they confuse explanation with excuse. Nowhere in Hillary Clinton's now infamous interview in Talk magazine, did she say her husband's adulterous behavior was reprehensible and that he should be held accountable for the consequences of that behavior. Instead, she merely asked us to understand why his behavior occurred.

Econophone When it comes to confusing explanation with excuse, Ms. Clinton is not alone. Take, for example, the recent riots that occurred at Woodstock '99. Instead of condemning the behavior of the youth that went wild for nearly two days, not only burning the property of others, but raping at least a half dozen women along the way, the concert organizers urged us to understand the circumstances that led to the riotous behavior (the groups on stage, the high food prices, the hot weather, etc., etc., etc.).

The problem with confusing explanation with excuse is that it let's the perpetrator off the hook. If we can explain why a behavior occurred, the reasoning goes, then we can't really hold the person accountable for that behavior, now can we? In effect, we are asked to accept that the person didn't do it, the explanation did.

This line of thinking is endemic in much of modern psychology. While studying to become a psychologist, I came under the influence of several professors with a behaviorist bent. If, these professors contended, we have perfect understanding of an individual's reinforcement history (that is, what kinds of rewards and punishments that individual has experienced in the past in response to a particular behavior), we would be able to perfectly predict the future behavior of the individual. In other words, if a person commits some reprehensible behavior, it's not really his fault, his reinforcement history made him do it!

Leiters Sukkah Freudian psychology says much of the same thing, but with different language. Understand the person's early psychosexual history, many Freudians contend, and you will know all you need to know to understand current (adult) behavior. So if that person commits adultery, he can't help it, his early psychosexual history made him do it!

Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is not confined to psychology. With the introduction of the social gospel at the end of the 19th century, individuals were no longer seen as responsible for such behaviors as drinking, drug use, debauchery, or criminal behavior. Rather, it was the social environment -- poverty, overcrowding, and the like -- that was to blame. Holding someone growing up in such conditions accountable for his or her behavior was "blaming the victim."

The same is true for the current enthusiasm for early brain development. If, proponents argue, most brain development occurs by age five, we can't hold adults accountable for their behavior, the fact that they didn't attend a high quality, early childhood education program made them do it!

I'm not suggesting that these factors don't matter when it comes to human behavior. Of course they do. One's reinforcement history plays a role, as does one's early psychosexual development, environmental circumstances, even early brain development.


But, if we're not careful, seeking explanations for one's behavior can lead to a refusal to be held accountable for that behavior. Which, of course, is exactly what the First Lady wants us to do when it comes to the president's deplorable behavior. Once we understand why he did what he did, she seems to imply, it is no longer legitimate to hold him accountable for it. In fact, we should see him as a hero for accomplishing so much despite his early history of "abuse."

Before we get too hard on the First Lady, we might want to take a good, long hard look at ourselves. Who hasn't, for example, justified speeding on the highway because we were "running late." And more than a few of us have blamed boorish behavior at a party on having "drunk too much."

I'm not suggesting that adultery and perjury before a grand jury are the moral (or legal) equivalents of speeding and boorish party behavior. But human nature draws us to the explanation as excuse equation precisely because it does let us off the hook. The First Lady is not alone in this, she merely reflects what we all tend to do, at least once in a while.

But rather than giving in to explanation as excuse, we must remind ourselves that whatever our reinforcement history, early psychosexual history or environmental circumstances, in the end we do have free will. And accepting that, we must also accept that it is reasonable and just that each of us should be held accountable for our own actions, whether we are a school teacher, a businessman, or President of the United States.

Of course, if you don't agree with me, don't blame me. My reinforcement history made me write this column. Or was it my early psychosexual experiences that caused me to write this. I can't remember. My brain's not working quite right. Must be because I didn't attend a high quality early childhood education program as a preschooler.


JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR

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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn