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A Model of Neutralization Techniques
Muel Kaptein & Martien van Helvoort
To cite this article: Muel Kaptein & Martien van Helvoort (2019) A Model of Neutralization
Techniques, Deviant Behavior, 40:10, 1260-1285, DOI: 10.1080/01639625.2018.1491696
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/01639625.2018.1491696
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A Model of Neutralization Techniques
Muel Kaptein and Martien van Helvoort
Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Neutralizations are important explanations for the rise and persistence of
deviant behavior. We can find many different and overlapping techniques
of neutralizations in the literature, which may be a reason for inconsistent
research findings on the use and influence of neutralization techniques.
Therefore, by following both a deductive and an inductive approach, this
article develops a model that covers these techniques in a logical way. This
is a novel approach in studying neutralization techniques. We distinguish
four categories of neutralizations: distorting the facts, negating the norm,
blaming the circumstances, and hiding behind oneself. Based on a broad
inventory of neutralizations that are identified in the literature –something
that has not been done before –we operationalized each of the four
categories into three techniques, each of which consists of five subtechni-
ques. The resulting model aims to reduce the risk of arbitrariness in the
selection of techniques for empirical research and thereby facilitates more
consistent future research findings. The model also aims to help better
understand how neutralizations work.
“I didn’t really hurt anybody,”“They had it coming to them,”and “I didn’t do it for myself”are, as
Sykes and Matza (1957) point out, examples of neutralizations. Neutralizations, also called rationa-
lizations, are defined by Maruna and Copes (2005) as justifications and excuses for deviant behavior.
Neutralizations have the awkward position of being “universally condemned while being universally
used”(Schlenker, Pontari, and Christopher 2001:15). They are considered an important or even most
important explanation of deviant behavior, such as fraud (Murphy and Dacin 2011) and embezzle-
ment (Cressey 1950). Neutralizations have thus become one of the most common concepts in the
study of deviant behavior (Serviere-Munoz and Mallin 2013).
Sykes and Matza (1957) are among the scholars to first study neutralizations. To explain juvenile
delinquency, they proposed five major types of neutralization techniques: denial of responsibility,
denial of injury, denial of the victim, condemnation of the condemners, and appeal to higher
loyalties. These five types of neutralization techniques, also known as the famous five, have been
widely used in many different fields (Maruna and Copes 2005). At the same time, many other new
techniques have been identified (Maruna and Copes 2005). Fritsche (2005:485) suggests that because
these various techniques “do not offer a theoretically sound taxonomy, nor an exhaustive list”, there
is the risk of arbitrariness in selecting which techniques to study for their use and influence. Maruna
and Copes (2005) warn that because many techniques overlap, this may be a reason for the
inconsistent research findings and may present problems for future researchers.
To address these risks of arbitrariness and inconsistency in the way neutralization techniques are
named and selected, this article aims to develop a model that covers the neutralizations that have
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2019, VOL. 40, NO. 10, 1260–1285
been presently identified and group these neutralizations into nonoverlapping techniques. This
article follows both a deductive and an inductive approach, a method that is new for this subject.
We first define a basic model of the categories of neutralizations. We then test and enrich this model
by collecting as many examples of neutralizations as possible that are suggested in the academic and
professional literature. Such collection has not been done before. By going back and forth between
the preliminary model and the collected neutralizations, we will arrive at a model that covers all
identified neutralizations. The contribution of this article is a model of neutralizations that is the
most comprehensive that can be found at present, one that facilitates less arbitrary and more
consistent research findings and helps better understand how neutralizations work. We start with
a brief description of neutralization theory.
Neutralization theory originated from research on criminology and deviant sociology (Curasi 2013). In
explaining how white-collar crime is learned, Sutherland (1941) states that rationalization is the primary
means by which managers attempt to justify their crimes. In a process of conscious self-discussion,
offenders talk themselves into committing the crime by making the crime acceptable. Cressey (1953)
found in a study among embezzlers that they rationalized their illegal behaviors through “vocabularies
of adjustment”such as they “only borrowed the money.”These verbalizations allowed embezzlers to
minimize the apparent conflict between their behavior and the prevailing laws and norms.
Inspired by the work of Sutherland and Cressey, Sykes and Matza (1957) were interested in
explaining how juvenile delinquents learn neutralizations. Sykes and Matza preferred to use the term
“neutralization”to refer to the justification given before the act instead of the term “rationalization”
that refers to the justification given after the act. The basic thesis of their article is that offenders
learn techniques of neutralizations so that they can violate the laws and norms that they ordinarily
believe in and adhere to. Offenders accept norms but view them as “qualified guides”instead of
“categorical imperatives”(Sykes and Matza 1957:666). Offenders are said to “neutralize”in advance
any disapproval of not following internalized norms because “social controls that serve to check or
inhibit deviant motivational patterns are rendered inoperative, and the individual is freed to engage
in delinquency without serious damage to his self-image”(p. 667). Thus, the offender can remain
“committed to the dominant normative system and yet so qualifies its imperatives that violations are
‘acceptable’if not ‘right’” (p. 667).
Neutralization theory seeks to explain the paradox of offenders violating norms that they believe
in while having seemingly little or no guilt. These offenders protect their self-esteem and neutralize
self-blame by employing linguistic devices to convince themselves that it is acceptable in their
current situation to engage in behavior that is traditionally considered immoral. Norms are not
denounced wholly but are momentarily bracketed so that an offender feels released to transgress
them (Hinduja 2007). So the contradiction between their behavior that violates a norm and the
resulting guilt and shame is neutralized by self-deception (Heath 2008). This neutralization of
behavior occurs not only following the offense but also prior to it, thus making deviant behavior
also possible (Sykes and Matza 1957).
According to Maruna and Copes (2005), the most significant stumbling point for neutralization
theory has been the difference between neutralizations and rationalizations. For the purpose of this
article, we will not make a distinction between these two terms because they are increasingly used
interchangeably in the literature, covering both ex ante and ex post arguments (Ashforth and Anand
2003; Serviere-Munoz and Mallin 2013). Neutralizations and rationalizations are also broadly
congruent with some other concepts whose vocabularies are used to bridge the gap between norm
and behavior (Ribeaud and Eisner 2010). Some widely used overlapping concepts are accounts (Scott
and Lyman 1968), disclaimers (Hewitt and Stokes 1975), and cognitive mechanisms of moral
disengagement (Bandura et al. 1996). Stokes and Hewitt (1976) introduced the notion of aligning
actions as a catchall for the behaviors expressed by these concepts.
DEVIANT BEHAVIOR 1261
Many of the studies on neutralizations use Sykes and Matza (1957)famous five to examine the extent
to which neutralizations exist in practice, how they explain and predict deviant behavior, and what
their conditions are (Maruna and Copes 2005). Given that Sykes and Matza’s list was tentative, as
they themselves have acknowledged, many studies have identified other neutralization techniques,
such as the metaphor of the ledger (Klockars 1974), claim of individuality (Henry and Eaton 1999),
and “no one cares”(Shigihara 2013). The famous five is also not uncontested. For instance, Ashforth
and Anand (2003) have proposed replacing the ‘condemnation of the condemners’technique with
social weighting because they consider the former a subset of the latter.
Many different categorizations and typologies of neutralization techniques and related concepts
have been proposed as a result of the many different neutralization techniques that have been
identified, such as by Scott and Lyman (1968), Schlenker (1980), Benoit and Hanczor (1994), Barriga
and Gibbs (1996), Bandura et al. (1996), Robinson and Kraatz (1998), Ashforth and Anand (2003),
Gellerman (2003), Geva (2006), Goffman (2009), Murphy and Dacin (2011), Banerjee, Hay, and
Greene (2012), and Shigihara (2013). Two typologies that claim to cover most of the techniques are
Schönbach’s(1990) and Fritsche’s(2002). Schönbach inductively collected accounts from 120
students who were confronted with vignettes of various failure events. The accounts contained a
total of 19 themes and led to the categories of concessions, excuses, justifications, and refusals.
Fritsche (2002:376) aimed to deductively develop an integrative metataxonomy of account strategies
that “maps the universe”by distinguishing from each other accounts that reject the reproach’s
legitimacy (refusal), those that reject one’s own agency (excuse), and those that reject that the
behavior contradicts the salient norm (justification). Fritsche’s taxonomy contained a total of 13
techniques. So far, none of the proposed categorizations of neutralization techniques are based on a
systematic inventory of already identified techniques for all kinds of deviant behavior. Because of
this, we still run the risk of having a limited, arbitrary, and only illustrative overview of techniques of
Toward a model
We used both a deductive and an inductive approach to develop a model that not only covers as
many neutralizations as possible but also offers a logical structure.
We started by deductively devising a basic structure that should help us connect the categories of
neutralization techniques to each other in a logical way. The basic structure we used is logical and
exhaustive because it is based on the essence of what neutralizations are. Neutralizations for deviant
behavior are techniques that help to argue away, fully or partly, someone’s responsibility for the
deviant behavior (“I am not to be blamed.”) so that there is no or less guilt. Neutralizing can then be
done in two ways: on the one hand, by denying deviant behavior, and on the other, by denying
responsibility. By denying deviant behavior, there is no problem at all. By denying responsibility,
there is no agency that can be credited with accountability. Using either of these two neutralizations
means that there is no (or only less) responsibility for the deviant behavior to speak of because there
is deviant behavior but one is not responsible for it, or that one is responsible but for a behavior that
is not deviant. Therefore, we have two broad categories of neutralizations for a deviant behavior:
denying deviant behavior (“It is not deviant.”) and denying responsibility (“I am not responsible
Each of these categories can be further subdivided into two categories. One can deny deviant
behavior through (I) distorting the facts (“It is not the truth.”) or through (II) negating the norm (“It
is not decisive.”). People can deny deviant behavior by changing the description of the situation so
1262 M. KAPTEIN AND M. VAN HELVOORT
that the norm that is violated is no longer applicable and thus would appear to have not been
violated at all. They can also deny deviant behavior by changing the norm so that it is no longer
applicable to the situation. Denial of responsibility can be distinguished into (III) blaming the
circumstances, where people pass on the responsibility to the situation and aggravating external
factors (“It is beyond my control.”) and (IV) hiding behind oneself, where people pass on the
responsibility to personal, internal factors and influences, thereby excusing themselves (“It is a lack
of self-control.”). These four categories are exclusive and exhaustive in the sense that offenders can
tamper either with deviancy (through the facts or norms) or with responsibility (through the external
or internal factors.)
These four categories vary in how much room they allow for avoiding the acceptance of guilt and
opting for another neutralization. Schönbach (1990) ranks his account categories in order of
escalating defensiveness from concessions, to excuses, to justifications, and up to refusals (the
most aggravating strategy). We can do the same with our four categories. Denying deviant behavior
is safer than denying responsibility in the sense of being less close to concession and having more
options open for other neutralizations. When one fails in denying deviant behavior, one still has the
option to deny one’s responsibility. However, in trying to deny one’s responsibility, one acknowl-
edges that a norm has been violated because otherwise one does not have to neutralize one’s
responsibility. When trying to deny deviant behavior, distorting the facts is safer than negating the
norms in the sense that when the facts are different and no or other norms apply, there is no issue at
all; thus there is no longer any reason to neutralize one’s behavior by negating the norms (cf. White,
Bandura, and Bero 2009). However, when one aims to negate the norms, one acknowledges the facts
otherwise one would not have to make the norm indecisive. When deviant behavior cannot be
denied at all or at least not sufficiently, it is safer to attribute responsibility to the circumstances
because if one fails, one can still try to use neutralizations for one’s lack of self-control. However,
using neutralizations for a lack of self-control implies an acknowledgement that not all responsibility
for the deviant behavior can be passed on to the circumstances (i.e., that one is then partially
To operationalize our model, we collected as many examples of neutralizations as possible. The
examples are in the form of quotes of neutralizations and similar concepts. We examined the
academic and professional literature in the following disciplines: deviance, criminology, (social)
psychology, (business) ethics, and management. We used as keywords the different concepts
discussed above (e.g., excuses, justifications, and rationalizations) and terms like distortions, illogical
arguments, and fallacies. We explored the electronic databases Blackwell Synergy, EBSCO, Google,
Google Scholar, ISI Web of Knowledge, JSTOR, ProQuest, ResearchGate, and SSRN. We conducted
a manual search of all articles published in the top-tier journals in the abovementioned disciplines.
We identified and examined other relevant publications cited within the retrieved publications. We
did the literature review independently of each other and merged our findings afterwards. Because
we cast our net broadly, we continued with only those neutralizations that are used to justify and
excuse deviant behavior. These include immoral, unethical, nonconforming, delinquent, and crim-
inal behavior. After grouping together similar neutralizations, we had a remaining set of 1,251
As the next step, we independently plotted each identified example of neutralization into one of
our four categories. We discussed and compared the results and agreed on the category allocation of
each neutralization. Based on the initial allocations, we then tried to refine the categories. With this
iterative process of putting collected neutralizations into a logical, detailed categorization of techni-
ques and testing whether these categories of techniques cover the collected neutralizations in a clear
way, we finally came up with three main techniques of neutralizations per category, with each of the
three techniques consisting of five subtechniques. This made a total of 60 subtechniques.
DEVIANT BEHAVIOR 1263
The resulting model can be defended on logical grounds. We have arguments for the
classification and also for the sequence of the categories and their techniques. It can also be
checked whether the model covers all the collected neutralizations and whether the suggested
subtechniques are different from each other. We were able to ascribe each collected example of
neutralizations to one of the techniques in the model. This suggests that the model covers all
neutralizations that have been identified to date. To start testing the discriminant validity of the
model, we randomly selected 30 examples of neutralizations and asked 9 academics and practi-
tioners to allocate them to one of the 60 subtechniques that were briefly described to them. In
85% and 93% of the cases the participants attributed the example to the same subtechnique and
technique, respectively, as we ourselves proposed. For two of the examples more than one third
of the panel members attributed it to another subtechnique. This led us to adjust the relevant
technique and its corresponding description.
A model of neutralization techniques
The resulting model is depicted in Figure 1. The model indicates that the higher the number of a
category and its (sub)techniques, the less room there is for people, who fail in using that particular
neutralization, to select another (sub)technique before they have to admit their guilt. This is because
by using a particular (sub)technique, the person implicitly acknowledges that the subtechniques
depicted earlier (i.e., lower number) in the model cannot be used any longer in a logical way. The
sequence in which the (sub)techniques are presented, however, does not suggest that the (sub)
techniques become more invalid or that everyone starts with the first technique, or moves in a linear
fashion, or follows the same sequence.
I. Distorting the facts
The distortion of facts is the first category of neutralizations. People employ this kind of neutraliza-
tions to misrepresent the facts to themselves or to others so that there will no longer be a violation of
a particular norm. They deliberately change or distort memories, scenes, events, and evidence to
reframe the situation (Cavanagh et al. 2001) and thereby change their reality (Rogers and Buffalo
1974). Agnew (1994:122) observes that neutralizations provide an “often distorted portrayal of the
events and conditions that contribute to (one’s) crime.”Murphy (2012) suggests that in many cases
offenders reconstrue the circumstances to justify the act. We found that distorting the facts can be
done by nuancing, denying, and inventing the facts.
1. Nuancing facts
The nuancing of facts is a technique whereby people escape reality by suggesting that there are no
(hard) facts and that in general or in the specific situation there is no truth. This technique consists
of the subtechniques of nuancing that there exists a truth, that there is one truth, that the truth is
easy to know, that there is a truth even if unproven, and that there is a truth even if not observed
The most fundamental subtechnique to deny deviant behavior is to argue that truth does not exist
and that everything is virtual. This is also the safest way to distort the facts because when this
technique fails all other techniques are still possible. This technique resembles the idealist–skeptic
approach that doubts the existence of any real world independent of the mind. Smith (2011) points
out that this is an epistemic fallacy because it relativizes reality: People claim that because they
cannot know the truth then reality does not exist or that it cannot exist independently of their
knowledge of it. On this view, facts are degraded to artifacts. This is also the postmodern fallacy of
ineffability or complexity, also called post-truth: People arbitrarily declare that the world is so
complex that there is no truth, or if truth exists, then it is unknowable (Williamson 2015).
1264 M. KAPTEIN AND M. VAN HELVOORT
A slightly less fundamental subtechnique is that people recognize that there is truth to the matter
but that everyone may have their own perception and interpretation of what is true and untrue. They
then suggest that there are no neutral observations of the world, that all knowledge is conceptually
mediated because there is no universal, indubitable, and neutral foundation for knowledge (Smith
2011). This so-called judgmental relativist approach to reality concedes that a real world exists but
that different accounts of the truth may exist because the truth of each account is believed to be
always relative to the paradigm that generates the account (Smith 2011). For example, Fooks et al.
(2013) found that managers at a tobacco company neutralized the harmful effects of smoking, which
were pointed out by the stakeholders, by believing that the stakeholders’views were erroneously
accepted as facts. In discussing neutralizations, Murphy (2012) posits that people can reject facts by
arguing erroneously that it cannot exist if they do not believe it.
People can acknowledge that there may be one universal truth about reality, but by suggesting
that truth is difficult to know they create room to make up their own favorable interpretation of the
truth. For example, people can claim that the situation is so complex that only they themselves can
determine what is real and unreal or that knowledge is reserved only for insiders. Williamson (2015)
Figure 1. A model of neutralization techniques.
DEVIANT BEHAVIOR 1265
calls this the fallacy of esoteric knowledge. By nuancing that truth is easy to know, people may argue
that truth is (always) in the middle thereby dismissing the viewpoints of others as being too extreme.
People may also argue, following a conventionalist approach of facts (Smith 2011), that as long as
there is no consensus about truth, truth does not exist and thus people are free to have their own
ideas about reality.
Instead of arguing that evidence to know what is true is always incomplete, people can also argue that
the truth of the matter can be known but only when it is proven. For example, something is true or false
only if it is proven to be true or false, or when it is scientifically validated, or when it is measured and
quantified. By following this neopositivistic line of reasoning, people may therefore suggest better
measures and collecting more empirical data (Smith 2011). This is also called the fallacy of moving the
goalpost: People escape the truth by arguing every time to wait for more evidence (Fuller 2002).
Williamson (2015) calls this the fallacy of measurability: If something cannot be measured and quanti-
fied, then it does not exist or only anecdotal and unworthy of serious consideration. Reed and Janis
(1974:3461) found that smokers denied the dangerous effects of smoking by arguing, “It has not really
been proven that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer.”
Even when the facts are proven, people can nuance them by suggesting that they should first
observe the facts themselves before it can be true. As long as they have not observed the facts
themselves it is not real, and judgment has to be suspended (cf. Hewitt and Stokes 1975). Kooistra
and Mahoney (2016) found that this technique is extremely important in war where soldiers justify
their killing by believing that their actions harm no one. Solders can deny the existence of their
victims and their victims’injuries because they do not see their faces and bodies. Rhodes and Cusick
(2002) found that people justified unprotected sex even when they were diagnosed to be HIV-
positive; they thought that because they did not fell ill then they had beaten the disease. This
subtechnique entails what Parfit (1984) claims as one of the mistakes of moral mathematics: When
one only believes what one sees thereby ignoring small chances and imperceptible effects.
2. Denying the facts
The second technique involves the denial of one or more facts surrounding the deviant behavior.
Whereas the first technique concerns general perspectives regarding truth, this second technique
concerns concrete facts in concrete situations. Even when people acknowledge that there is truth to
the matter, they can still avoid the complete truth by denying one or more of the relevant facts.
Consciously pretending that nothing really happened is, according to Cavanagh et al. (2001), a
critical element in the arsenal of neutralizations. They found selective amnesia to be a significant
feature of men neutralizing their violence toward their partners thereby reducing their violence to
“unreality.”Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) argue that one engages in this kind of conscious self-
deception by rehearsing the lies in one’s mind until one convinces oneself of their truth. This is what
Ashforth and Anand (2003) call minimization: People technically accept what happened but only in
a“watered down”form, and by suppressing the knowledge, at the extreme, they selectively forget the
deviant behavior such that in some sense it never happened. The denial of facts can be related to the
consequences of one’s behavior and to one’s behavior, intentions, circumstances, and impotence.
The technique involving the denial of consequences is referred to in the literature as the denial
and minimization of damage (Schönbach 1990) or harm (Fooks et al. 2013). Misconstruing or
disregarding the consequences of the act makes the consequences appear less real than they actually
are so that there is less reason for self-censure to be activated (Bandura et al. 1996). White, Bandura,
and Bero (2009) found that aggressors neutralized their behavior by discrediting any evidence of
harm. Bandura et al. (1996) found that people using this technique were less able to recall the
harmful effects of an act. Ignoring the effects of actions is also one of the mistakes in moral
mathematics suggested by Parfit (1984). As an example, Banerjee, Hay, and Greene (2012) found
that 10% of their participants believed that the use of tanning beds could not be all that bad because
many people who use tannings beds have long lives.
1266 M. KAPTEIN AND M. VAN HELVOORT
Although people can acknowledge the consequences of their actions, they can still deny the
existence of the underlying behavior. Schönbach (1990) identifies this as the denial of the occurrence
of the alleged failure event. For example, Maruna and Copes (2005) found that many rapists hold the
belief that their action did not involve any force even though they raped with a weapon or during a
burglary. People can also deny that they were present at the moment of the wrongdoing by, for
example, suggesting, “I wasn’t here”(Kaptein 2005). Schönbach (1990) discussed this technique as
one of the accounts where there is acknowledgment of the negative aspects of the failure event but
no concession of one’s own involvement. Stadler and Benson (2012) found that 21% of the white-
collar inmates they sampled denied any involvement in the wrongdoing that led to their
Another neutralization technique is the denial of intentions. When people acknowledge that
certain behavior has occurred they can still escape reality by denying that they did it intentionally.
Henry and Eaton (1999) call this technique denial of negative intent and Stadler and Benson (2012)
calls it denial of criminal intent. Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) argue that even if one and others
accurately recall one’s prior wrongdoing, it is still possible to avoid telling oneself the whole truth by
reconstructing the motives behind the original behavior. People are able to misinterpret and distort
their bad intentions. Von Hippel, Lakin, and Shakarchi (2005) have also conducted research to
demonstrate this subtechnique. In their laboratory experiments, people were more likely to cheat
when their cheating could be cast as unintentional, and they were less likely to cheat when their
cheating was clearly intentional.
Even when people acknowledge the behavior, intentions, and consequences of the behavior, they
can neutralize their deviant behavior by denying evidence about the circumstances (Fooks et al.
2013). Rhodes and Cusick (2002) found that people neutralized unsafe sex by employing wrong
arguments to ignore that the other person may be HIV-positive. For example, “You’re big and slim,
you can’t be HIV positive.”A frequently noted element in the denial of facts in this context is the
denial of humanity, which is proposed by Alvarez (1997). When humans are dehumanized and
viewed as pigs (Gailey and Prohaska 2006), as targets (Levi 1981), as not normal (Darley 1992), as
inferior to us (Byers, Crider, and Biggers 1999), as subhuman (Alvarez 1997), as cogs in a wheel
(Martin, Kish-Gephart, and Detert 2014), and as suckers (Anand, Ashforth, and Joshi 2004), then it
becomes easier to commit harm toward them.
A final subtechnique of denying the facts is denying one’s impotence. People do not deny the
consequences, behavior, intentions, or the circumstances, but they create a less negative or more
positive view of their own knowledge and capabilities. Ashforth and Anand (2003) consider the
illusion of control to be one of the neutralizations for corruption in business. By having an inflated
perception of one’s self by, for example, arguing that “Whatever the problems, if any, I felt I could
handle them”and “Nothing could hurt me”, people can ignore problems. There is also Josephson
and Hanson (2002) argument from omniscience: people argue that conflicts of interest do not affect
their judgment even though their objectivity has been affected. Nelson and Lambert (2001) also
found that professors who were accused of bullying used the technique of evidentiary solipsism in
which the professors portrayed themselves as uniquely capable of divining and defining the “true”
meaning structure of events, thus making it possible for them to develop a quite foreign interpreta-
tion of what has happened.
3. Inventing new facts
Inventing new facts is another technique to distort facts. People imagine and fantasize about a
situation in which the violated norm no longer (fully) applies. This technique goes further than the
techniques discussed above because it is more active: The person creates a new reality. People claim
that there is another truth or that it is not the whole truth, or that others are ignoring the facts, or
that there is more going on than meets the eye (Williamson 2015). The distinction between fact and
fiction becomes blurry. Fantasizing is a pathological defense mechanism that involves creating an
DEVIANT BEHAVIOR 1267
inner world when the real world becomes too painful, difficult, or stressful (Niolon 2011).
Fantasizing results in a reality so distorted that one can stop neutralizing further one’s deviant
behavior. Five subtechniques of inventing new facts are inventing consequences, behavior, inten-
tions, circumstances, and one’s potence.
Inventing consequences can be both in a positive and negative sense. Regarding negative
consequences, Reed and Janis (1974) found that smokers neutralized not to stop smoking because
they imagined that “If I stop smoking I will gain too much weight.”Regarding positive conse-
quences, Moore and McMullan (2009) found that some participants in their study argued that file
sharing helped rather than harmed musicians because file sharing could make a musician’s work
more popular, which would then translate to more earnings. Rhodes and Cusick (2002) found that
people who have had a condom accident used it as neutralization for unprotected sex, claiming that
unsafe sex has already occurred. They invented consequences such as they were already HIV-positive
or the accident would occur again anyway.
Instead of inventing consequences, people can also invent facts about their behavior. This is done
by, for example, making the wrong assumptions or drawing the wrong conclusions. Reasons such as
“No news is good news”and “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire”are completely fictitious suggestions
about potential underlying behavior (Williamson 2015). Improperly concluding that one thing is the
cause of another –the fallacy of non-causa pro-causa (Fuller 2002)–and equating correlation with
causation both create a wrong picture of what the actual (real) behavior is. People can also invent
behavior by pretending that they acted or did something even when they actually did not. Instead of
neutralizing their inaction or lack of response toward the deviant behavior of others, people can
fantasize that they confronted the wrongdoers, that they told the wrongdoers to stop, or that they
pointed out the wrongdoing to others who can stop the wrongdoer.
Another subtechnique is to invent intentions. In this situation people imagine that they have a
better motivation than they actually do. For example, Scully and Marolla (1984) found that rapists
neutralized their behavior by claiming that they loved the woman thus they overestimated their own
intentions. Geva (2006) notes that by pretending that one’s motivation is actually good, one then
neutralizes one’s deviant behavior. This is supported by a field study of Gauthier (2001), who found
that veterinarians neutralized the substandard care they provided by pretending that they were not
driven by pecuniary motives but by ethical motives to help others.
People can also invent facts about the situation. One can do this by interpreting the situation in
such a way that there is no deviant behavior anymore. For example, in the study of Scully and
Marolla (1984), one of the rapists said, “It was like she was saying, ‘rape me’”; another rapist said,
“All woman say ‘no’[when you want to woo her] when they mean ‘yes.’” Gilgun (1995) also found
pedophiles who imagined children to be older by avoiding eye contact with their victims. By
imagining new developments too positive people can neutralize their behavior. For example,
Banerjee, Hay, and Greene (2012) found users of tanning beds neutralized their behavior with the
claim that in the event they would get skin cancer there would be a cure available. Stuart and Worosz
(2012)found that industrial food processors neutralized their behavior of not protecting consumers
better by an unwavering faith in the progress of science and technology.
A final identified subtechnique for inventing facts is inventing facts about their potence to create
a less negative or more positive view about themselves. Benoit and Hanczor (1994) describe the story
of a famous figure skater who neutralized her lies about an attack by claiming that she was scared she
would be hurt if she had been honest. Gilgun (1995) found that pedophiles ignored the age
discrepancies by experiencing themselves as younger and being a kid again.
II. Negating the norm
The second category of neutralizations that deny deviant behavior is one that negates the norm. The
facts are not distorted but the decisive norm that should be applied to the situation or behavior is
being refuted. This category consists of three techniques: reducing norms to facts (when people deny
1268 M. KAPTEIN AND M. VAN HELVOORT
that a norm is relevant in the situation), appealing to another norm (when people acknowledge the
norm that is violated but justify the violation by appealing to another more important norm), and
relativizing the norm violation (when people acknowledge that the norm is violated wrongfully but
mitigate the wrongness by comparing it to other behaviors).
4. Reducing norms to facts
Reducing the norm to facts is one way of negating the relevant norm. The relevance of norms is then
ignored and excluded. Five identified subtechniques are the reduction to facts, to taste, to labels, to
the immorality of condemners, and to an invalid norm.
The first subtechnique for negating the norm is to reduce it to facts. This involves people arguing
that there are only facts in their situation hence there is no room for norms or normative judgments.
From this moral nihilist perspective, people claim that the facts are given thus they do not require
any interpretation; it is a fait accompli; it is what it is. This subtechnique functions as an a priori
argument about how reality is. For example, “That is just the way the world works”(Maruna and
Copes 2005) and “It’s just the fact”(Topalli 2006). In addition, the statement, “I do it anyway”
(Atkinson and Kim 2015) absolves people from any moral reflection, and “It’s something that’s been
here so long,”(Forsyth and Evans 1998) hides them behind collective traditions and folkways.
The next subtechnique is the reduction of the norm to taste. By suggesting that morality, as set of
norms, is taste people acknowledge that there is morality but that this is subjective, individualistic, and
personal (Kaptein and Wempe 2002). This implies that people are free or even have the right to choose
and do not have to account for their choice to others. From Williamson (2015), we gathered the following
examples of this kind of neutralization: “It is my own life,”“You’re not the boss of me,”and “So what?”
Other examples we have identified are “It is none of their business”(Marx 2003)and“That is no business
of yours!”(Fritsche 2002). Henry and Eaton (1999) labeled this neutralization as the claim of indivi-
duality: People do not care what others think of them or their behavior.
A third subtechnique is the reduction of the norm to labels. In this case people acknowledge that
morality is not individualistic but they describe or redescribe the facts (Geva 2006) with the use of
labels so that morality is excluded or reduced. Examples of labels are metaphors, analogies,
euphemisms, acronyms, and jargons. Because language not only shapes people’s thought patterns
but it is also malleable in itself, it is a convenient tool for neutralization (Ashforth and Anand 2003).
By using sanitizing and convoluted language (White, Bandura, and Bero 2009) people engage in
interpretative denial (Cohen 2013) and false labeling. Geva (2006) calls this euphemization rationa-
lization. Examples of labels that neutralize are car theft as joyride (Copes 2003), stealing as adjusting
income (Shigihara (2013), corruption as hospitality (Lowell 2012), and sexual abuse as teaching love
A more offensive subtechnique is reducing the norm to the immorality of the accusers; this
corresponds to Sykes and Matza (1957) neutralization of the condemnation of the condemners.
People disparage and denigrate their accusers to show that they do not have the right to accuse, and
therefore the norm the accusers proclaim can be dismissed (Fritsche 2002; White, Bandura, and Bero
2009). This subtechnique is different than the reduction-to-taste technique because it does not
involve ignoring one’s accountability toward others. Rather it involves ignoring one’s accountability
toward specific people in a particular situation. Claiming that the accusers are “hypocrites, deviants
in disguise, or impelled by personal spite”(Sykes and Matza 1957), malicious and devious (Garrett
et al. 1989), unfair (Rogers and Buffalo 1974), uninformed and biased (Rosecrance 1988), silly
(Forsyth and Evans 1998), brainwashed (Durkin and Bryant 1999), neurotic (Irwin 2001), hostile
(Maruna and Copes 2005), and “are making a career out of moralizing”(Kvalnes 2014) all fall under
A final subtechnique of reducing norms to facts is arguing that the norm is invalid and irrelevant.
One acknowledges the existence of morality and the specific norm being violated but one argues that
it is only relevant for others. Some examples are “We are above the law,”“Rules are meant for other
DEVIANT BEHAVIOR 1269
people,”and “Ethics and laws are for lesser firms”(Anand, Ashforth, and Joshi 2004; Barriga and
Gibbs 1996). Individuals could also acknowledge that the norm is relevant for them but then argue
that the norm in question is not meant to be followed, such as the belief that a specific rule is meant
to be broken (Kooistra and Mahoney 2016). Liddick (2013) calls this subtechnique the denial of the
necessity of the law. The use of this technique can be initiated by portraying the norm as too
restrictive (Siponen and Vance 2010), too ambitious (Lanier and Henry 2004), too vague, complex,
and inconsistent (Ashforth and Anand 2003).
5. Appealing to another norm
When people acknowledge that the relevant norm is at stake, they can neutralize the violation of this
norm by appealing to a higher, more important norm that needs to be followed. In this sense there
can even be “a moral inversion, in which the bad becomes good”(Adams and Balfour 1998:11).
Bandura et al. (1996) call moral justification of people’s detrimental behavior by reconstrueing it in
the service of valued social or moral purposes. Five relevant subtechniques are appealing to higher
goals, to others and to their expectations, to rules and regularity, to intentions and intuition, and to
self-interest or the lack thereof.
Appealing to higher goals is used to justify deviant behavior based on a goal that one considers
more important than the norm that is being violated. Liddick (2013) and Schönbach (1990) call this
the appeal to a higher moral principle and the appeal to positive consequences, respectively. This
goal can be expressed in general terms, as in “It’s for the greater good”(Martin, Kish-Gephart, and
Detert 2014) and “It’s for their own good’’ (Johnston and Kilty 2016). It can also be expressed in
more specific terms, as in “to free animal slaves”(Liddick 2013) and “to maintain a good business
relationship with a good customer”(Rabl and Kühlmann 2009). It is especially when the cause is
noble that it is attractive to use as a “higher goal”because it makes the bad behavior appear good
(Fooks et al. 2013).
Another subtechnique to deny the applicable norm is by appealing to others and to their
expectations. In this case, one argues that the norm to be followed is determined by others. This
is different than appealing to higher goals where people themselves determine and defend the norm
that should be followed. In appealing to others and/or to their expectations, the others in question
could be a role model (Dunford and Kunz 1973), an authority (Gilgun 1995), or one’s group (Moore
et al. 2012). Also those who are harmed –whether they (will) ask for the wrongdoing, or agree with
it, or not refuse it (Wortley 2001)–can be the “others”that could be appealed to. What others do or
will do can also be used as neutralization: “They would have done the same to us”(Kvalnes 2014).
Henry and Eaton (1999) call this neutralization the claim of normalcy. What others evoke is also
used to justify norm violation: “Suckers deserve to be taken advantage of”(Costello 2000) and “You
get what you pay for”(Gauthier 2001). Rice (2009) calls this the abuse defense.
People can also appeal to a right to neutralize deviant behavior. They hide behind moral and legal
rights, by calling upon laws, rules, agreements, and promises. Some examples are “The law says this,
and I follow it”(Osofsky, Bandura, and Zimbardo 2005), “It is my contract”(Levi 1981), and “It’s
legal, it’s ethical”(Geva 2006). Fooks et al. (2013) found that corporate actors even justified deviant
behavior with reference to some unspecified universal right that protects the freedom of businesses.
This technique is known by many names: as the defense of the necessity of the law (Coleman 2005),
the defense of legality (Fooks et al. 2013), the appeal to legal rights (Garrett et al. 1989), and the
appeal to the right of self-fulfillment (Schönbach 1990).
Another subtechnique is the appeal to good intentions. People acknowledge that their behavior is
wrong but that their good intentions or the lack of any bad intention, make the behavior not deviant.
In other words, deviant behavior is unproblematic as long as people do their best (cf. Schönbach
1990). This is what Ferraro and Johnson (1983) refer to as the appeal to the salvation ethic: People
do bad things but claim to have good intentions. Some examples of this subtechnique are “I didn’t
mean it”(Sykes and Matza 1957) and “It was an honest mistake”(Eliason and Dodder 1999). Forsyth
1270 M. KAPTEIN AND M. VAN HELVOORT
and Evans (1998) found this subtechnique, which they call the we-are-good-people defense, among
dogmen. Following one’s intuition belongs also to this subtechnique: As long as people personally
feel comfortable with it, they can sleep with it, and can look themselves in the mirror, then it is good
and thus there is no deviant behavior (cf. Badaracco and Webb 1995).
A final subtechnique to appeal to another norm is appealing to self-interest or to the lack thereof.
When people point to the lack of self-interest to justify their bad behavior, they mean that they too
are hurt by the bad behavior or that they are not benefitting from it. Examples of such neutraliza-
tions are “I didn’t do it for myself”(Lanier and Henry 2004) and “There was not personal gain in it
for me”(Coleman 1987). When appealing to one’s own self-interest people argue that it is reasonable
for them to give priority to, for example, their own needs, pleasure, or survival. This egocentric
approach is more problematic than the other subtechniques of appealing to another norm because it
is most remote from considering the interests of all stakeholders (Kaptein and Wempe 2002).
Examples of such neutralizations are “If I really want something, it doesn’t matter how I get it”
(Barriga and Gibbs 1996), “I am interested in my own advantage”(Gruber and Schlegelmilch 2014),
and “She’s my daughter. She needs to take care of my needs”(Gilgun 1995).
6. Relativizing the norm violation
People employ the technique of relativizing the norm violation when they acknowledge that they
have breached a norm but that it is not “that”bad. We have identified five arguments by which the
relativization takes place: others (as long as others are as bad or even worse), the frequency (as long
as it is not too often), the seriousness (as long as it could be worse), the good deeds (as long as it is in
balance), and regret (as long as there is remorse). These subtechniques are arranged according to
decreasing number of arguments available for neutralizing: relativizing has less depth and are less
persuasive and thus closer to the admission of deviant behavior.
People can compare their wrongdoing to that of others to neutralize their own behavior. This
technique, also known as the reference to the sin of others (Fritsche 2002) or selective social comparison
(Anand, Ashforth, and Joshi 2004), can make use of stereotyping: people distinguish themselves from a
stereotype of a more vicious kind (Jennings 1990). Some general examples of this subtechnique are “At
least we’re not doing what those people are doing”(Martin, Kish-Gephart, and Detert 2014)and“Others
are worse than we are”(Anand, Ashforth, and Joshi 2004). Some specific examples are “Stealing some
money is not too serious compared to those who steal a lot of money”(Bandura et al. 1996)and
“Throwing a gum wrapper out the car window is nothing compared to the damage caused by violent
criminals”(Liddick 2013). In this regard, people can also argue that if they do not do it someone else will
and in a worse way (Coleman 1987; Lanier and Henry 2004;Levi1981).
When people cannot compare their behavior to those of others to justify a norm violation, they
can focus on their own behavior and argue that their behavior is not (that) bad as long as it not does
occur (too) frequently. People relativize frequency when they claim, “It is just for one time”
(Rosenbaum, Kuntze, and Wooldridge 2011), “It was an exception”(Fritsche 2002), and “It is
okay if I do something questionable every now and then”(Hinduja 2007). Rosenbaum, Kuntze,
and Wooldridge (2011) call this subtechnique “first-time only-time crime”. They found it used in
cases of fraud among consumers who did not deny the illegality of their behavior but saw it as an
exception, as a singular instance of deviant behavior.
Even when people have to acknowledge that any wrongdoing is wrong, they can still neutralize
their own wrongdoing by relativizing its seriousness. They compare their behavior to a (potentially)
worse one so their own wrongdoing will appear less or not bad at all. They can then claim that their
behavior could have been worse. So people say for example, “I may be bad, but I could be worse”
(Cromwell and Thurman 2003), “It is okay to insult a classmate because beating him/her is worse”
(Bandura et al. 1996), and “I did use force, but not as much force as I probably could have”
(Cavanagh et al. 2001). These cases are characterized by a comparative standards justification
DEVIANT BEHAVIOR 1271
(Schönbach 1990), advantageous comparison (Bandura et al. 1996), or claim of relative acceptability
(Henry and Eaton 1999).
Another way to relativize a norm violation is to argue that the wrongdoing is neither not bad nor
less bad but that it is in balance. This subtechnique comes after the previously mentioned sub-
techniques because here one acknowledges that the behavior itself cannot be made less bad but that
it can either be compensated for by one’s own good deeds or be seen as a compensation for the bad
behavior of others. This subtechnique is also called the metaphor of the ledger (Klockars 1974),
moral licensing (Merritt, Effron, and Monin 2010), claim of entitlement (Coleman 2005), and merit-
based account (Shigihara 2013). Examples of this technique are “I felt like the world owed me
something”(Copes 2003), “I’ve done more good than bad in my life”(Lanier and Henry 2004), and
“After years of slaving for this company, I have a right to steal a few office supplies”(Liddick 2013).
The final relativization subtechnique in this category is people arguing that deviant behavior is
acceptable as long as they regret it, or as long as they want to learn from it or promise to better their
lives. Promised reform, such as “I will certainly change my behavior in the future”is what Fritsche
(2002) calls the affirmation to abstain from the deviant behavior in the future. This subtechnique is
also called justification by postponement (Piacentini, Chatzidakis, and Banister 2012) and the appeal
to own learning experience (Schönbach 1990). It is the least safe of the five subtechniques for
relativizing norm violation because people compensate for their wrongdoing only with words, which
can convince the least.
III. Blaming the circumstances
People use the neutralizations that fall under categories III and IV when they acknowledge that their
behavior is wrong but argue that their responsibility for their behavior is either reduced or absent.
Sykes and Matza (1957) call this denial of responsibility, Bandura et al. (1996) refer to it as the
diffusion and displacement of responsibility, and Rhodes and Cusick (2002) as the denial of agency.
With this neutralization people claim that one or more of the conditions for responsible agency are
not met (Kvalnes 2014), hence the link between them and their behavior is broken (Serviere-Munoz
and Mallin 2013). They claim that they are not themselves acting but are being acted upon (Sykes
and Matza 1957). Whereas with Category III neutralizations people shirk their responsibilities by
blaming the circumstances, with Category IV neutralizations people shirk their responsibilities by
reducing themselves. We can recognize Category III neutralizations in the literature as externalizing
blame (Stadler and Benson 2012), apportioning blame elsewhere (Goffman 2009), and scapegoating
(Scott and Lyman 1968). This category of neutralizations consists of three techniques that limit the
options, the role, and the choice.
7. Blaming the limited options
People using the limitation-of-options neutralization try to deny their moral agency by reducing or
removing their options. By claiming that they do not have any real options or that they have less
(easy) options, they are then claiming that they are not (or less) morally responsible for their
wrongdoing. Because there is no realistic and better alternative, they are forced to behave deviantly.
Minor (1981) calls it the defense of necessity when people claim to have no other acceptable option
under the constraining circumstances but to engage in deviant behavior. The relevant subtechniques
involve blaming the limitations of being confronted with one option, with conflicting options, with
difficult option(s), with unrealistic option(s), and with a unique option.
By suggesting that they are confronted with only one (real) option, people claim to have no other
option (anymore) than to do what they have done or what they are about to do (Anand, Ashforth, and
Joshi 2004). One is unable to do the right thing because there is no other alternative (Geva 2006). Some
examples of such neutralizations are “I knew it was wrong, but I just didn’t have any other choice”
(Cromwell and Thurman 2003), “It’s not my fault, I had no other choice”(Strutton, Vitell, and Pelton
1272 M. KAPTEIN AND M. VAN HELVOORT
1994), and “What can I do? My arm is being twisted”(Anand, Ashforth, and Joshi 2004). Ferraro and
Johnson (1983) name this subtechnique the denial of either practical or emotional options. In their
research, the battered women used the denial-of-emotional-options technique: They felt that no one else
other than their abusive partners could provide them the intimacy and companionship they needed.
Instead of arguing that they do not have any option, people can claim to be confronted with
conflicting options or norms. By using this neutralization people suggest that they are in a dilemma
when actually there are more alternatives available, or the options available do not really contradict
each other. Geva (2006) refers to this as the creation of a false dilemma. The use of this subtechnique
suggests that people have more freedom than the use of the preceding subtechnique implies.
Claiming to be confronted with conflicting options or norms means that the individual can now
choose between two (or more) options (and not just have one). The fact that the options are
considered conflicting means that although the norms they express might be different they are of
the same importance. This implies that choosing the actually less important norm is justified.
Examples of this subtechnique are “Both targets are due; unfortunately, we have to make a choice”
(Geva 2006) and “If I stand in front of the shelf and there are five products and all five products are
equally bad I can only choose the lesser of two evils”(Gruber and Schlegelmilch 2014).
People can also blame the circumstances by claiming that the option they have is a difficult
one. In this situation, people do not deny that they have another option or claim that all options
be chosen. However, by arguing that the circumstances (e.g., systems and procedures) are
complex or even irrational and crooked, they are claiming that they cannot be blamed for
failing to behave compliantly (cf. Benoit and Hanczor 1994). For example Gruber and
Schlegelmilch (2014) found that consumers neutralized their behavior of not boycotting unethi-
cal companies by appealing to the interconnectedness and complexity of products and supply
chains as well as that “so many products have a name that doesn’t reveal the company behind it,
People can also claim to be confronted with an unrealistic option as a way of blaming the
circumstances. While acknowledging that the best option is available, people can neutralize their
deviant behavior by claiming that the circumstances do not offer more realistic options thereby
asking too much of them (Rosenbaum, Kuntze, and Wooldridge 2011). For example, Brunner
(2014) found that consumers neutralized their failure to buy fair trade products by claiming that
these products are too expensive and there are no cheaper alternative fair trade products. In this
regard, people can also argue that because the circumstances are bad, it is unrealistic for them to
behave well. An example of this neutralization is “Life is unfair, and everyone is corrupt and it is
a rat race to get ahead, regardless of who gets hurt”(Hinduja 2007). This subtechnique is riskier
than the previous three discussed above because arguing that one is being asked too much is
quite akin to the idea that is part of category IV: that one is not prepared to pay a price for
The final subtechnique of the limitation of options is claiming that one is confronted with a
unique option. In this case, people acknowledge that they have a realistic option to behave
compliantly but they neutralize their deviant behavior by suggesting that the circumstances do
not offer sufficient chances or offer only a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Research shows that
people neutralize their theft (Cromwell and Thurman 2003), illegal behavior (Hinduja 2007),
and price fixing (Sonnefeld and Lawrence 1978) by seeing it as being confronted with a unique
option. Some examples are “It’sokaytotakelittlethingsfromstores,ifitistheonlywayto
nd“It was a case of emergency”(Dunford and
DEVIANT BEHAVIOR 1273
8. Blaming the limited role
Instead of pointing to the limited options, people can also blame the circumstances by limiting their
role. In this respect, people do not deny that there is the option to behave compliantly. Instead they
claim to have less or no relationship with and thus no responsibility for the deviant behavior. People
can do this in several ways, by claiming that they are not responsible, that they have no responsi-
bility, that they are not the only one responsible, that only others are responsible, or that the context
By claiming that one is not responsible, one is saying that one is either not the cause or only
remotely the cause of the wrongdoing. Thompson (1980) calls this the excuse from null cause:
People then do not hold themselves responsible for a behavior when a subsequent action by another
can control or determine whether their own action will have any effect. People can also neutralize
their responsibility by arguing that they are not doing anything. They claim that because they do not
directly cause the wrongdoing, then they are not responsible for solving it or that their contribution
to the solution for a wrongdoing is limited (cf. Fritsche 2002). This neutralization ignores the
possibility that one can contribute to a wrongdoing even if or precisely because one is not doing
anything. Examples of such neutralizations are “I played such a small part that I’m not really
responsible”(Moore 2008) and “I learned a long time ago not to worry about things over which I
have no control”(Maruna and Copes 2005).
People can also limit their role with regard to the wrongdoing and deny any responsibility by
claiming that the prevention or solution of the wrongdoing is not their formal task, function, or job.
“It’s not my job”is, according to Thompson (1980), a common excuse to cut short any argument
about whether an official could make any difference. Although one cannot be responsible for
everything, it is, as Thompson argues, not enough to claim that one’s formal role does not require
taking other actions. Examples of this subtechnique are “It is none of my business”(Anand,
Ashforth, and Joshi 2004), “I don’t feel that it’s my responsibility. They are grown adults”(Rhodes
and Cusick 2002), and “It is not an employee’s responsibility to report corporate violations to any
outside source”(Clinard 1983).
Even when people acknowledge their responsibility, they can still try to reduce it by arguing that
they alone are not responsible, thus implying a shared responsibility. For example, “We were all in
on it”(Maruna and Copes 2005) and “We did it together”(Rhodes and Cusick 2002). In this case,
there is dispersal of blame and partial transfer of responsibility (Thompson 1980). Schönbach (1990)
calls this an appeal to participation as coactor in the failure event. People can also suggest that their
behavior is the result of the behavior of others (Fulkerson and Bruns 2014). For example, Nelson and
Lambert (2001) found that bullies portrayed themselves as the victim rather than the agent of
bullying. Rice (2009)shows how offenders use the neutralization of protecting themselves and others
to shift part of the blame for their wrongdoing to those who started with the wrongdoing.
A riskier technique than partly blaming others is to blame them fully and hold them completely
responsible thus fully denying one’s own responsibility (Barriga and Gibbs 1996). For instance, “It is
the company’s responsibility to make sure that things like this don’t happen”(Bersoff 2001) and
“Caveat emptor”(Piquero, Tibbetts, and Blankenship 2005). People can also deny full responsibility
by claiming that they are dependent on others to be able to do what is good. Fritsche (2002)
describes this as the reference to the helplessness of the individual, where one’s own good behavior is
only useful if others act in the same way. For instance, “I will never be able to change anything if
others don’t also stop”and “Why should I be the first?”(Fritsche 2002). These neutralizations are
also called the pioneer’s lament (Marshall 2017). People can also claim that others are responsible
because, for example, the latter have the expertise (Johnston and Kilty 2016) or initiated the
wrongdoing (Stuart and Worosz 2012).
If people cannot partly or fully apportion responsibility to others, they can then try to hold the
context responsible for their wrongdoing. Time pressure is one possible excuse (Schönbach 1990). So
people argue that they are overloaded (Haines et al. 1986). Other things that people can blame are
1274 M. KAPTEIN AND M. VAN HELVOORT
their jobs: “I hated doing it, but it’s my job”(Geva 2006) and “My job made me a real bitch”
(Thompson, Harred, and Burks 2003); technology and tools: “I did not kill, my gun or grenade did
it”(Kooistra and Mahoney 2016) and “The computer is to blame”(Geva 2006); receipt of inadequate
information: “Information didn’t reach me”(Geva 2006) and “We received unreliable or inadequate
advice”(Rhodes and Cusick 2002); culture: “The messenger gets shot a lot”(Badaracco and Webb
1995) and “They don’t trust me”(Marx 2003); and childhood: “It’s not my fault. I commit crime
because I had a troubled childhood”(Liddick 2013).
9. Blaming the limited choice
Next to using the excuse of having limited options and role, people can blame the circumstances by
claiming to have limited choice. In this case, people do not deny their moral autonomy but suggest
that this is threatened and undermined by pressures and temptations. These pressures and tempta-
tions are quite difficult to resist because they are overwhelming and irresistible; thus, it is but
reasonable that one succumbs to them. People attribute their limited choice to several things:
pressure from authority, group pressure, performance pressure, an overwhelming temptation, and
a very big opportunity.
In appealing to pressures from authority as an excuse, people are claiming that they behave
deviantly because of the influence of, or force or coercion from an authority figure (Bandura et al.
1996; Moore et al. 2012; White, Bandura, and Bero 2009). Kelman and Hamilton (1989:16) note that
basically in a situation when someone has authority over another, “actors often do not see them-
selves as personally responsible for the consequences of their actions. . . . They are not personal
agents, but merely extensions of authority. Thus when their actions cause harm to others, they can
feel relatively free of guilt.”So, for instance, people say, “I felt pressured by the boss”(Mayhew and
Murphy 2014), “I was made to do it by my boss”(Moore 2008), or “I felt unduly pressured by top
management and supervisors”(Clinard 1983).
Appealing to group and peer pressures is another subtechnique to limit one’s choice. It is less safe
than appealing to authority figures because following the instructions or commands of an authority
is the basic idea of hierarchy (Maruna and Copes 2005) and is therefore less unconvincing to oneself
or others than satisfying or living up to the expectations of one’s group and peers. Examples of this
subtechnique are “Kids cannot be blamed for misbehaving if their friends pressured them to do it”
(Bandura et al. 1996), “When I would screw it up I would be sanctioned by exclusion”(Celsi, Rose,
and Leigh 1993), “I do it to impress others”(Rosenbaum, Kuntze, and Wooldridge 2011), and “I
would be a party pooper”(Priest and McGrath 1970).
People can also blame the pressures caused by performance expectations, objectives, and targets.
For example, by suggesting that the performance criteria are set too high, people create an excuse for
behaving deviantly to meet these criteria. This subtechnique is different from the subtechnique of
conflicting options because it is not about norms conflicting with each other but about one norm
conflicting with a goal or interest. Examples of this subtechnique are “We have to hit the numbers”
and “Even if it requires practices that are unethical, middle management has to try to meet a
corporation’s objective”(Clinard 1983). The threat and fear of being punished for not meeting the
performance criteria can be used to deny one’s responsibility (Coleman 1987). In this regard, Anand,
Ashforth, and Joshi (2004) cite a marketing officer, “When we didn’t meet our growth targets, the
top brass really came down on us. And everybody knew that if you missed the targets enough, you
were out on your ear.”
People can also appeal to the irresistibility of an all-too-powerful temptation to make their
deviant behavior plausible. With this subtechnique, people still blame the context but it is less safe
than the preceding subtechniques because it quickly suggests a weak personality of not willing or
being able to resist temptations (which is part of category IV). Perpetrators of sexual abuse
frequently use this argument; they accuse their victim of being a seductress and being provocative
(Fulkerson and Bruns 2014; Hall, Howard, and Boezio 1986; Scully and Marolla 1984). Vasquez and
DEVIANT BEHAVIOR 1275
Vieraitis (2016) also found that street taggers blamed their actions on being victims of seduction. As
one tagger said, “It’s like the walls are telling me to tag. I hear them calling my name everyday when
I walk home.”It is as if something or someone asks for the wrongdoing to be committed (Curasi
2013). This subtechnique corresponds to what Schönbach’s(1990) calls “the excuse of distraction”.
The final subtechnique for blaming the circumstances is to cite the existence of a “too big an
opportunity”as something that limits one’s choice to act compliantly (cf. Cressey 1953). When using
this technique, people acknowledge that they possess moral agency and have the freedom to behave
compliantly but that this is threatened by extreme demands on their personal integrity. Here people
are not being seduced in the sense that others are suggesting or demanding the commission of the
wrongdoing. Examples of this subtechnique are “Because I could”(Murphy 2012), “It is available”
(Hinduja 2007), “It was very convenient”(Rosenbaum, Kuntze, and Wooldridge 2011), and “That is
extremely cheap”(Gruber and Schlegelmilch 2014).
IV. Hiding behind oneself
Instead of blaming the circumstances people can also reduce or diminish responsibility by hiding
behind themselves. They suggest that they have no full control over themselves, thereby mitigating
their culpability or guilt. They deny responsibility by “attributing the action to another part of the
self that has been disengaged from the ‘real’me”(Maruna and Copes 2005:280). Cohen (2013) calls
this the most radical actor adjustment. One can hide behind oneself by claiming to have imperfect
knowledge, capabilities, or intentions.
10. Hiding behind imperfect knowledge
By hiding behind a lack of knowledge, people suggest that they are ignorant or are not aware of the
relevant things and that therefore they cannot bear (full) responsibility. Schahn and colleagues (cited in
Fritsche 2002) identified this as a relevant technique for neutralizing environmentally harmful behaviors.
They call this “reference to lack of knowledge.”For Scott and Lyman (1968), this cognitive disclaimer is
the simplest denial to achieve defeasibility. One can hide behind a lack of knowledge by claiming to have
imperfect knowledge of the norm, the situation, the desired behavior, of oneself or memory.
People can appeal to having imperfect knowledge of the norm that is at stake. Some examples of
this subtechnique are “I really didn’t think I was doing anything wrong at the time”(Gannett and
Rector 2015) and “I don’tknow enough about fair trade –that’s why I don’t buy these products”
(Brunner 2014). Rhodes and Cusick (2002) found in their research among people having unpro-
tected sex numerous examples of this subtechnique: “I did not know that unprotected sex carried
HIV transmission risks”,“I did not know what it was all about”, and “We didn’t know what safer sex
meant, it was a completely new expression.”In this regard, Rice (2009) discusses the insanity defense
in which people argue to be unable to determine right from wrong.
People can also appeal to imperfect knowledge of the situation, i.e., they have less or no understanding
of the circumstances. Some examples are “I was not really realizing the consequences of it at the time”
(Rhodes and Cusick 2002), “Why didn’t I see the gravity of the problem and its ethical overtones?”(Geva
2006), and “I did not know the weapon was loaded”(Vernick et al. 1999). This corresponds with what
Fritsche (2002) calls the reference to a lack of intentionality, when people claim that they had no
information that could have guided or contradicted their behavior. This is the case when people claim
to have acted in a thoughtless way or have been unaware that their behavior has contradicted the norm.
The same holds for what Scott and Lyman (1968) call the gravity disclaimer, where people admit to the
possibility of the outcome in question but suggest that its probability is incalculable.
Another subtechnique is hiding behind the claim of imperfect knowledge about the desired
behavior. People may know what the relevant norm and situation is but do not know what they
have to do. They claim to not have the faintest notion about what to do, to be in the dark, and to
doubt what the right course of action is. An example of hiding behind imperfect knowledge about
1276 M. KAPTEIN AND M. VAN HELVOORT
the desired conduct comes from Priest and McGrath (1970) study on the use of marijuana. One of
their respondents said, “I had no reason to say no”when his friend offered him marijuana for the
first time. People can argue that this lack of knowledge is due to their lack of training, experience,
and/or intelligence, or due to their own perplexity (Schönbach 1990).
More fundamental than the preceding subtechnique is the appeal to an imperfect knowledge of
oneself. People then claim to be ignorant not about things outside them but about themselves. Some
examples are “I was simply absorbed in thought!”(Fritsche 2002), “I did not even know what I was
doing”(Cavanagh et al. 2001) and “I blacked out”(Cavanagh et al. 2001). Rice (2009) mentions in
this regard the defense of automatism, which refers to people appealing to being on autopilot as an
excuse for their deviant behavior. The defense of automatism is also described in Kooistra and
Mahoney (2016) as a technique where soldiers in combat may feel themselves dehumanized, lose
sharpness of consciousness, and forget about their own death by losing their individuality; They act
as automatons, behaving almost as mechanically as the machines they operate.
People can also try to suggest that they have imperfect memory. The difference with the first
category, distorting the facts, is that with the imperfect memory neutralization, people admit
that there is deviant behavior and that they cannot (fully) blame others for it. However, by claiming
that they have an imperfect memory about their own role in the action, they are then trying to escape
admission about their contribution. Examples are “I mean, if you think about it, it seems wrong, but
you can ignore that feeling sometimes”(Cromwell and Thurman 2003), “I don’t know anything”
(Benoit and Hanczor 1994), and “I think I kind of blanked out, my mind went a blank”(Cavanagh
et al. 2001).
11. Hiding behind imperfect capabilities
People can also try to hide behind imperfect capabilities. They then claim that they are unskilled and
uncontrollable. Schönbach (1990) calls this technique claiming impairment of capacity. Arguments
that reflect this technique are, for example, “I did not have the power,”“I could not stop myself,”and
“I was uncontrollable”(cf. Hall, Howard, and Boezio 1986; Priest and McGrath 1970; Rhodes
and Cusick 2002; Scully and Marolla 1984). The relevant subtechniques here are hiding behind
imperfect capabilities as a human being, imperfect social and technical skills, imperfect self-restraint,
imperfect self-resistance, and hiding behind imperfect self-perseverance.
The most general subtechnique used by people who hide behind a lack of capabilities is suggesting
that all or most human beings do not possess the capability in question and that therefore it is
reasonable that they too lack it. As Thompson and Schlehofer (2007) suggest, people with an external
locus of control believe that external factors determine whether people achieve their goals because
their capabilities are insufficient and inadequate. Rhodes and Cusick (2002) found that women
excused themselves for having unprotected sex by suggesting that many women lack the capability to
negotiate (“alot of women feel intimidated that they can’t say ‘no’”). The lack of such capability on
the part of women was positioned as an outcome of the general uneven distribution of power
between women and men. As one HIV-positive heterosexual female reported, “If the man is not
going to use a condom, there’s nothing you can do.”
People can also claim that while others may possess the capability to behave well, they themselves
lack it. People then claim to have no or limited, what Thompson and Schlehofer (2007) call, self-
efficacy. One of its subtechniques is claiming to have imperfect skills. Schönbach (1990) identified
claiming a lack of technical skills as a kind of neutralization. This is when individuals claim to lack
professionality, competences, experience, and craftsmanship to perform their tasks. Taylor (1972)
identified sexual offenders who cited defective social skills in their accounts. They claimed that they
stumbled clumsily into the situation or that they were trying to engage in compliant behavior but
failed. For instance, “I didn’t mean to frighten her. I was trying to ask her to come out with me.”
Scott and Lyman (1968) suggest that people may be inclined to position themselves as clumsy when
the same type of accidents befalls them frequently.
DEVIANT BEHAVIOR 1277
Another subtechnique is one where people do not deny that they have the skills to behave good
but they claim that inner factors override their ability to demonstrate or make use of those skills.
These inner factors or conditions, such as impulses, temper, and needs, are considered to be so
strong that they cannot be suppressed (Scully and Marolla 1984). People then claim to have an
imperfect capability for self-restraint. We can find instances of these neutralizations in Taylor’s
(1972) study of sexual offenders: “It was my inner impulse,”“I could not break down my strong
desire,”and “I was overcome by a desire.”Cavanagh et al. (2001) identified in their study subjects
who regularly claimed their inability to control their temper as the cause of their violent behavior.
Some of the subjects described themselves as becoming a “different person”:“I lose control of myself.
I know what’s happening; I can see it happening but my temper just takes over”(p. 707).
Instead of claiming to lack skills or self-restraint people can neutralize their behavior by claiming
that they have not the capability to resist (big) temptations and (overwhelming) opportunities.
Rhodes and Cusick (2002) discussed people who claimed to lack this capability:
I was totally aware of what was safe and what was not, and I knew all the facts completely, but [. . .] it was
completely irrelevant because I didn’t have any powers. I didn’t see myself as someone who had the power to
choose or the ability to make that, to negotiate that with someone else.
The use of alcohol and drugs is mentioned frequently as an excuse for a lack of resistance (Gailey
and Prohaska 2006; Rhodes and Cusick 2002; Vasquez and Vieraitis 2016). Rice (2009) calls this kind
of excuses the “ten beers and 3 joints too many”technique.
People can also claim that while they have the capabilities to behave good, they cannot however
demonstrate their capabilities over a long period. They appeal to having imperfect perseverance that it is
impossible for them to always behave in a compliant way. Precisely because compliant behavior is about
perseverance (Kaptein 2017), this subtechnique, more than the preceding subtechniques, raises the
question whether the offender actually wants not to act deviantly. This technique corresponds with
what Schönbach (1990) describes as claims of impairment due to fatigue or exhaustion: One’spersever-
ance peters out due to fatigue and exhaustion. Rhodes and Cusick (2002) found examples of people who
lost their perseverance. As one HIV-positive homosexual man remarked, “He kept wanting to fuck me
and I didn’t really want it, but he tried a few times and then it happened.”
12. Hiding behind imperfect intentions
A last resort before admission of guilt is to hide behind a lack of good intentions. People using this
subtechnique claim to be disinclined, unwilling, or ill-affected to behave compliantly. This is the
most unsafe technique because one acknowledges that one willfully behaved improperly, which
makes it close to confession. People blame their will, claiming they cannot be responsible for their
bad will and therefore not for their behavior either. For Scott and Lyman (1968), the impairment of
the will is one of the excuses for bad behavior. This technique consists of the subtechniques of hiding
behind an imperfect mood, behind imperfect preferences, behind an imperfect trait, behind being
imperfect as human, and behind being an imperfect person.
had a defective mental state at the moment they acted (Rice 2009). For example, they were
desperate, furious, or mad (Agnew 1994;Feld2006; Schönbach 1990), which caused the wrong-
doing. Vitell and Grove (1987) interviewed a marketeer who neutralized his behavior with “I
couldn’t help myself, I was desperate.”People can also hide behind a defective mental state for a
longer period, which would then suggest a diminished responsibility (Rice 2009). Emerson
(1969) presents some examples, such as “I am mentally ill”,“I am retarded,”and “Iamsick.”
One of the rapists in Scully and Marolla (1984) research said in this regard, “Ihaveamental
disorder, but I am not crazy.”
1278 M. KAPTEIN AND M. VAN HELVOORT
People can also hide behind having imperfect preferences, which are less temporary than one’smood.In
this case, individuals behave badly because they want to or because they like it: “The heart wants what the
heart wants”(Marshall 2017). Topalli (2005) cites the example of a street robber who says, “IdoitbecauseI
like to do it. It’sfuntome,it’s real fun to me. Just taking they money, seeing them scream, crying, begging,
‘Don’tkillme.’Because it’s fun to me. I like to see the motherfuckers scream.”In studying neutralizations
used by car thieves, Copes (2003)cameacross“I often have this tendency,”“Sometimes, you know, you just
need a ride,”and “I just did it because at the time I needed to do this.”
People can also hide behind an imperfect trait instead of behind a preference. This is more fundamental
because it is not temporarily or marginally part of who one is. An explanation men use for incest is that they
are afraid of adult women (Durkin and Bryant 1999). Fritsche (2002) refers in this regard to Schahn and
colleagues who in studying how environmentally harmful behavior is neutralized, came upon the refer-
ence-to-lazinesstechnique.Someexamplesofthistechniqueare“I’m just too lazy to go to the recycling-bin
each time,”“To keep turning the engine on and off, that’s too awkward to me,”and “In principal, I buy the
cheapest product.”Priest and McGrath (1970) found marijuana smokers who used curiosity as neutraliza-
tion. Some other examples found are “I had to steal the drugs because I’manaddict”and “I’mjusta
kleptomaniac, it wasn’tmyfault.”(Maruna and Copes 2005).
Instead of having an imperfect trait, people can also reduce their responsibility by arguing that
they are imperfect as a human being; it is then natural to be bad because nobody is perfect and
deviant behavior is common nature (Byers, Crider, and Biggers 1999). Because one is human, one is
morally defective. Appeals to biological drives are common forms of making excuses (Scott and
Lyman 1968). Neutralizations that appeal to forces of nature have been identified by Rhodes and
Cusick (2002)in their study on unprotected sex. Some of their subjects positioned themselves as
unable to alter the course of naturally occurring events because, as one positive heterosexual person
said, “I know I have the disease but I am human too is.”The subjects also conceived of their body
and its inner workings as a mysterious stranger that is always with them.
Close to surrender and confession of blame is the acknowledgement that one is an imperfect
person. Without referring to others or to humanity in general, one admits that one lacks integrity.
However, by labeling and considering oneself as naturally deviant, one is then trying to mitigate
one’s responsibility to be otherwise and to behave better. “This is just who I am,”as Maruna and
Copes (2005) report. People can also pretend that they do not care for the norm, as in “I’m not the
kind of person who buys fair trade products”(Brunner 2014), “I am a little rebel”(Rosenbaum,
Kuntze, and Wooldridge 2011), and “I am doomed”(Maruna and Copes 2005). Topalli (2006) also
found numerous similar examples like “Nothing in the world that bothers me at all about it,”“I don’t
have no pain, no shame, no gain,”and “I just don’t care. I have no conscience.”
For the first time in the history of scientific research, both a deductive and an inductive approach have been
used to develop a model of neutralization techniques. The broad inventory of neutralizations identified in
theliteratureisalsonew.Theresultingmodel,consisting of 60 subtechniques that are clustered into 12
techniques and 4 categories, covers all identified neutralizations in a logical way. The techniques are put in
the sequence of how little room there is to avoid acceptance of guilt. The model is also presently the most
comprehensive model of neutralizations in the sense that it covers more (sub)techniques than other
proposed models or lists of neutralizations. By doing a broad inventory of neutralizations, the model
addresses the issue raised by Howard and Levinson (1985) and Maruna and Copes (2005)thatcrimin-
ological and psychological research literature mutually ignore each other’s neutralization techniques. This
systematic overview of different neutralization techniques reduces the risk of arbitrariness in selecting one
or more techniques, thereby facilitating more consistent research findings in the future. For example,
studyingtheimportanceofsomesubtechniquesinaparticular setting should acknowledge or even control
for the potential existence and influence of other subtechniques. This acknowledgment is something that
Hollinger (1991), Piquero, Tibbetts, and Blankenship (2005), and Moore and McMullan (2009)failtodo.
DEVIANT BEHAVIOR 1279
The model of neutralizations developed in this article may also help to better understand how
neutralizations work. Maruna and Copes (2005) suggest that identifying new neutralization techniques
and listing and modeling them is not interesting. According to them, “What is interesting about neutraliza-
tion theory is this function (what the neutralizations do), not the flavors it comes in”(p. 284). However, our
model shows that modeling neutralization techniques may also help to better understand what neutraliza-
tions do and how they work. Identifying and clustering neutralizations help to better understand the
relationship between different (sub)techniques: That is, where a certain subtechnique can be placed in
the total range of potential subtechniques, which subtechniques are more or less close to each other, and the
sequence in which subtechniques are used by people. For example, our model suggests that offenders will,
when possible, use techniques that are in the lower rather than in the upper half of the model because when
their neutralization fails, they then have more room to select another technique. The clustering of
techniques also suggests that the closer the techniques are to each other, the more similar they are (i.e.,
they work in the same way). This will also help answer what Maruna and Copes (2005)consideroneofthe
most important questions for future neutralization research: Whether specific types of deviant behavior
require specific neutralization techniques. Having a more comprehensive model where the neutralization
techniques are clustered in a logical way may be helpful to systematically answer this question.
Our proposed model offers also several other directions for future research. One is to further empirically
validate the model by collecting neutralizations from practice that could then be plotted into the model. If
this fails, then the model would need to be improved. The model’s suggested sequence of the categories and
(sub)techniques can also be empirically validated by examining two things: to what extent (potential)
offenders who use different subtechniques do that in the sequence of our model (although we do not
suggest that they use every subtechnique) and whether they experience that the closer their neutralization to
subtechniques in the sequence our model suggests, then we have to find out what kind of arguments they
use for that and how effective these are in neutralizing deviant behavior. Having an empirically validated
model lends itself for developing a scale for assessing the frequency and intensity of each of the sub-
techniques. The model could consequently be used for examining which neutralizations are more or less
often used and are “most toxic”(Maruna and Copes 2005:290) in which situations and combination, and
by which type of people.
Thefollowingarethepracticalimplicationsofourmodel. It can be used as a framework for assessing in,
for example, the workplace, courtroom, and private sphere, which neutralization techniques are used so as
to better understand the occurrence and risks of deviant behavior. The model can also be used to make
people (more) aware of potential neutralizations to prevent their use. The model can also be used to
counteract neutralizations by defining the type of interventions. Different types of interventions have been
proposed to counteract neutralizations (Braithwaite 1989;Feld2006; Maruna and Mann 2006; Walters
1998). Each of the four categories in our model may require a different type of intervention. First, distorting
thefactsmaybecounteractedbywhatWalters(1998:67) calls “confronting with facts”to face the truth.
Second, negating norms can be counteracted by convincing those who use neutralizations of the decisive-
ness of the norm that is at risk. Third, blaming the circumstances may be counteracted by deactivating the
suggested influence of the circumstances (Copes & Williams 2007) to “replace externalized accounts with
internal, stable, global attributions of cause”(Maruna and Mann 2006:157). Finally, hiding behind oneself
aybecounteractedbyactivatingpersonalresponsibility so that people take responsibility for their
behavior (Maruna and Mann 2006). When one or more of these interventions succeed less deviant
behavior will take place.
Notes on contributors
Muel Kaptein is Professor in Ethics and Integrity at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. His
research interests include the management and measurement of ethics. His work is published in journals such as
Journal of Management, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Journal of Business Ethics, and Human Relations.
1280 M. KAPTEIN AND M. VAN HELVOORT
Martien van Helvoort works as coordinator at the Policy and Planning Department of The Netherlands Food and
Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA). For this article, he was a part-time researcher at the Rotterdam School
of Management, Erasmus University.
Muel Kaptein http://orcid.org/0000-0002-5066-306X
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