You left the stove on too long and now your meal is burned.
On your way out the door, your cat escaped outside, and now you will be late.
While walking down the street, you slip on some fallen leaves.
When misfortunes like this occur to you, what’s your first thought? Do you immediately figure out who was at fault, other than you? Or you do resign yourself to accepting responsibility for such common mishaps that were under your control?
Not everyone is equally likely to engage in the blame game, but there is little scientific research to advise us on who is most likely to do so. We can, however, define a dimension of blame-acceptance by adopting a few simple principles: On the extreme Blame side of our scale would be people who can always find something else to blame: You could attribute the burned meal to your partner, who doesn’t help enough around the house, forcing you to multitask and forget the chicken simmering in the pan. You do not blame your cat for its misbehavior, but you might blame your neighbor who waved hello at just the wrong time. Slipping on the sidewalk as a result of your clumsiness? Of course not; people should sweep the leaves up off the ground before they become a hazard.
At the other end of the spectrum are people who blame themselves for everything, even when they’ve had nothing to do with an unfortunate outcome. This isn’t just false modesty or fishing for reassurance; some people do believe that they cause every bad thing all or most of the time.
It’s also possible, of course, to blame fate or a higher power, especially when there’s no one else who could conceivably have caused the outcome. You certainly wouldn’t be able to blame your partner, or yourself, for the devastating effect of a tree crashing through your roof in a storm (although maybe you'd blame your partner for not getting the tree cut down). Religious people often attribute such events to a higher power who is either testing their faith or punishing them for their weaknesses.
Related to the study of blame is the social psychology of attributions. Blaming yourself when something goes wrong might relate to a general tendency to make so-called internal attributions for failure in which you see yourself as inept, foolish, or irresponsible. That tendency might motivate you to attribute your successes to external factors, such as fate, chance or luck, as well.
And there’s always the fundamental attribution error: People excuse themselves for the same negative behavior that they blame others for doing.
Another related area of research involves deciding whether someone who commits an immoral act is to blame. Consider what happens if two people each throw a brick off a bridge at passing cars. One person’s brick lands harmlessly on the road, but the other person’s strikes the people in the car, resulting in a serious accident. Theoretically, the person whose brick didn’t injure anyone is just as culpable as the one that did—they both had the same malicious intent. Moral luck is the belief that you should hold someone to blame only if the action causes harms to others, not what the intent was. You would therefore blame the accident-causing brick thrower more than the other.
Are you a believer in moral luck? According to research by Texas A&M's Heather Lench et al. (2015), you are if you agree with statements such as "Negligent acts that do not result in bad outcomes should not be punished," and, "It should not be a crime to commit an act that could have harmed someone, unless that harm actually occurred." If so, you weigh outcome more than moral intent when assigning blame.
If two people have the same intent, they should be equally blameworthy. But according to Lench and team, our judgments aren't always that logical. People may say that in the abstract, intent should matter more than the outcome of a blameworthy action, but when judging actual cases, they're still swayed by outcome.
With this background in mind, here are five reasons we play the blame game.
- Blame is an excellent defense mechanism. Whether you call it projection, denial, or displacement, blame helps you preserve your sense of self-esteem by avoiding awareness of your own flaws or failings.
- Blame is a tool we use when we’re in attack mode. Falling into the category of a destructive conflict resolution method, blame is a way to try to hurt our partners.
- We’re not very good at figuring out the causes of other people's behavior, or even our own. The attributions we make, whether to luck or ability, can be distorted by our tendency to make illogical judgments. And we're just as bad at making judgments involving the blameworthiness of actions in terms of intent vs. outcome.
- It’s easier to blame someone else than to accept responsibility. There’s less effort involved in recognizing your contributions to a bad situation than in accepting the fact that you're actually at fault, and changing so you don't do it again.
- People lie. As my colleague, Robert Feldman, discovered, “Everybody lies.” It’s pretty easy just to lie and blame someone else even though you know you’re at fault. You may figure that no one will know it was really you who spilled coffee all over the break room, so you just blame someone else who’s not there (and hope that person never finds out).
Unlike other games, the more often you play the blame game, the more you lose. Learning to tell when you need to own up to your role in a bad situation will help you grow from your experiences, and ultimately help you achieve more fulfilling relationships.
Lench, H. C., Domsky, D., Smallman, R., & Darbor, K. E. (2015). Beliefs in moral luck: When and why blame hinges on luck. British Journal Of Psychology, 106(2), 272-287. doi:10.1111/bjop.12072.