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Why So Many People Blame Their Partners When Things Go Wrong

... and how to let them off the hook.

Key points

  • People have a tendency to judge who's to blame in an accident by the outcome, not the individual's intent.
  • If you tend to attribute blame to your partner for accidental outcomes, it can be helpful to learn how to understand the role of intent.
  • When someone's intent is to cause harm, it's important to overlook the outcome in judging blame even when no harm occurs.

Your day was off to a pretty good start as you began to check some big chores off your to-do list. One of these chores was to rearrange a storage cabinet containing your finest glassware used only for special occasions. The shelves were higher than you could reach, though, so you shouted out to your partner to ask for a hand. Your partner gives you a little lift, but much to your dismay, a tumbler goes tumbling to the floor and splinters into pieces. As you realize the damage is too extensive to repair, your mind immediately turns to the role your partner played in this whole debacle. “How could you let this happen?” you shout, “You should’ve been more careful!”

Now, think about the same situation but with a different ending. Your partner’s hold on you wasn’t all that great as you reached for the upper shelf, but luckily, the glass just tipped on its side without falling down. Would you still blame your partner or just express some annoyance about the situation?

The tendency to attribute blame for the outcome of an action turns out to be a complex process. As described by the University of East Anglia’s Gavin Nobes and Boston College’s Justin Martin (2021), people judge the rightness or wrongness of an action by “morally irrelevant factors such as outcomes and luck” (p. 2). Your partner may have been careless in helping you reach for that upper shelf, but if your partner is "morally lucky," and the glass survived the incident, you won’t see your partner as being in the wrong. In other words, intent doesn't count but outcome does in judging blame.

How Do People Assign Blame for Accidents?

According to Nobes and Martin, there’s a disconnect between intention and outcome. At a relatively early age, children learn to separate these two aspects of assigning blame for accidents.

However, when the third factor of negligence comes into play, all bets are off. What determines whether an unintentional accident is blameworthy depends on whether the individual appears to have acted carelessly. However, if no accident occurs even if the person is negligent, then that individual is off the hook as long as there were no ill intentions.

The case of the broken glass presents an interesting dilemma because, technically, you were the one who caused the accident. However, because your partner was involved, your moral judgment apparatus may shift gears and they can become the target of your blame. Given that shift can cause bad feelings, is there a way that you can, in the future, be more accepting of a similar type of accident both in understanding your own role and in not turning your wrath toward your partner?

To answer this question, it’s helpful to understand the process of moral judgment as a combination of the factors of intent, outcome, and negligence. Manipulating these three factors across a set of two studies, Nobes and Martin posed one of several scenarios to their U.S.-U.K. participants beginning with this stem:

One autumn afternoon, Cynthia is driving home from getting lunch. Her two brothers are in the car with her. As they get close to their home, they see a very large leaf pile on the side of the road, the biggest they have seen all season.

The experimental manipulation consisted of providing participants with one of several possible endings, defined as follows; in each case, Cynthia feels two bumps as she drives through the leaves:

  • Original: Cynthia’s brother asked her to drive through the leaves.
  • Non-negligent: A car comes veering toward them and Cynthia had to swerve to avoid it and ends up in the leaves.
  • Negligent: Cynthia’s brother asks her to drive through the leaves and she does so, forgetting that children often play in them.
  • Reckless: Cynthia’s brother asks her to drive through the leaves and she does so, even though she knows that children often play in them.

Varying the outcomes of each scenario defined the final manipulation, as follows:

  • Positive: The bumps were two sticks and they didn’t damage the car
  • Negative: The bumps were two children who were killed instantly.

When you got to the negative outcome, you undoubtedly felt saddened, but did you think that Cynthia was to blame for her negligence and should be punished? Or did you use the “moral luck” argument that the fates conspired against her in the negative outcome situation, and that luck was on her side in the positive?

In the views of the undergraduate samples used to test judgments of blame across these scenarios, when the children died, even without negligence specified, almost all (92 percent) decreed that Cynthia should be punished, and most (71 percent) assigned punishment for at least a year. Only a small minority (10 percent) blamed Cynthia when the outcome was positive. Thus, although the “intentions” were similar, Cynthia was considered innocent only if no children were killed by her actions. Furthermore, based on comparisons of the specific conditions outlined above, it appeared that people automatically assumed that, when the outcome was negative, it reflected Cynthia’s negligence.

Clearly, then, the data supported the study's predictions that a negative outcome dominates people’s judgments of whether the morally “unlucky” person should be blamed, punished, and considered negligent. There are two sides to this situation. What if the person wasn't at all negligent and therefore not at all blameworthy? As the authors conclude: “whenever judgments of accidental agents are made, for example, in and courts, workplaces, schools or homes, the advice should be to seek and provide this information if at all possible, even if it is that there was no evidence that the agent was negligent.”

On the other hand, if someone was morally “lucky,” and the outcome is positive (or at least not negative), the people doing the judging may need to be reminded if the person was in fact negligent: “The agent deserves punishment as much as someone who was equally negligent, but whose action unluckily led to a negative outcome” (p. 22).

Behind all of this reasoning, the authors go on to explain, is the question of choice. It was Cynthia’s decision to drive through the leaves. If all she hit were two sticks, then she was the beneficiary of “good option moral luck.” If she hits the children, then she has become a victim of “bad option moral luck.” The only way that Cynthia exonerates herself from the negative outcome is to have been forced to drive through the leaves by the threat of the oncoming driver, or what’s called “bad brute luck.”

How Can You Make Better Judgments of Your Partner’s Behavior?

All of this complicated logic may be difficult to unpack, particularly in the moment when your partner’s behavior leads to a set of possible interpretations. However, as the Nobes and Martin study shows, it’s all too easy to be influenced by an outcome rather than intention in deciding whether your partner is to blame for a misfortune.

To avoid the “moral luck” trap, pull negligence out of the blame equation. Accidents can happen for a number of reasons having nothing to do with negligence on the part of the actor. They can also have nothing to do with intent. As tempted as you might be to automatically assume that your partner’s behavior reflected some hidden piece of unconscious malice. In other words, going “Freudian slip” on your partner could lead to a faulty instance of finger-pointing.

Having taken this first stab at exonerating your partner, you might next ask yourself why you’re so likely to have blamed your partner in the first place. Does your belief that your partner acted to hurt you come from the conviction that your partner is untrustworthy or, worse, doesn’t really care about you? This kind of bias can lead to the sort of unfair blaming that can only further erode your relationship.

To sum up, judging the cause of anyone’s behavior is never an easy proposition. When it comes to your partner, the blame game becomes fraught with more than just philosophical ambiguity. Try to take a step back and look at your partner’s—and your own—behavior with a more informed and forgiving approach.

Facebook image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

References

Nobes, G., & Martin, J. W. (2021). They should have known better: The roles of negligence and outcome in moral judgements of accidental actions. British Journal of Psychology. https://doi-org/10.1111/bjop.12536

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