Blame: A Not-So-Guilty Pleasure
Since blame is unavoidable, be sure to do it well.
Posted Jan 11, 2019
Regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum, it could be argued that Donald Trump is the most entertaining president since Teddy Roosevelt wrestled in the White House. Almost daily, he does something, tweets something, or suggests something that is, or that may be, monumentally blameworthy, depending on your political orientation. And if you are one of the 38% who has decided to stand by him come hell, high water, or both, you can enjoy blaming those who blame him. Donald Trump is a bonanza, therefore, for everyone who relishes the blame game, which is everyone except the occasional saint. (But if you check the Bible, you’ll find that even Jesus blamed a fig tree.)
Unlike more studied judgments, such as of legal responsibility, blame is largely visceral. When you are hiking with a group of people in the woods, and the person in front of you slings a branch that thwacks you in the face, your immediate reaction is not to weigh the probabilities that he intended to do it; rather, you get angry, blame, and then realize that he didn’t mean to do it, and excuse. In the realm of human judgment, blame is the easy part, excusing and forgiving are the toughies.
Since Trump's election, the viewership of all the major news networks is on the rise, but CNN and MSNBC have especially increased their audience relative to Fox News since the firing of former FBI director James Comey. The difference is that CNN and MSNBC routinely blame Trump for his actions, often in his own words, whereas Fox News supports the White House contention that blaming Trump in his own words is fake news.
Blame derives from the most basic of human needs: to distinguish between those who are likely to promote our interests and well-being and those who may thwart those interests and do us harm. Because blame is essential to survival, people are preoccupied with it. Go to any online news website on any given day—Fox, CNN, MSNBC—and you will find that a high proportion of the stories involve events for which blame is apportioned or debated. Think of how many times you’ve heard or seen the phrase “the blame game.” Think about how many times you’ve blamed people in your own life, either upfront and in person, or in covert narratives swirling in your head while you are cooking a meal, mowing the lawn, or unable to sleep. And, think about your reaction to being blamed by others.
At one time, psychological theories of blame, which were based on judgments of legal responsibility, were highly rational: That is, they listed all the factors that needed to be taken into account before blame could be determined. These included factors such as whether the person to be blamed thought about her harmful actions in advance, whether her actions were accidental or coerced, whether she foresaw and directly caused the harm that occurred, and whether she fully understood what she was doing or was under pressure from external sources (such as a gun pointed at her head).
In recent years, however, researchers have increasingly recognized that blame is an immediate reaction to events, one that is influenced strongly by the blamer’s emotions and values. Rather than representing exceptions to an otherwise rational blame process, these instantaneous reactions are viewed as part and parcel of what blame is all about. This shift from a rational model of blame to a more psychological one derives partly from an interest in everyday blame in contrast to legal determinations of responsibility. The things we blame people for in everyday life—breaking our hearts, being rude, dishonest, inconsiderate, or selfish—are beyond the pale of the law. And so, we are under no obligation in our ordinary lives to act like jurors in a criminal investigation. Instead, we have free reign to blame anyone we want for anything they’ve done, even if the things we blame them for were largely our own fault!
So, if Horace blames the governor of his state for failing to foresee and prepare for a damaging flood, Horace may be exactly right, or he may really be blaming the governor for his conservatism, opposition to gay marriage, or having a supermodel wife. As my students, colleagues and I have demonstrated in many experiments, this desire for blame, based on personal dislike, value differences, or sheer emotional revulsion, can alter the judgments that people make about an alleged perpetrator’s state of mind and actions. Because Horace dislikes or disrespects the governor to begin with, he may exaggerate the extent to which the governor was negligent in failing to foresee the flood, to respond to the flood once it occurred, or to care for its victims. These unfavorable judgments about the governor’s state of mind and behavior then serve to justify the desired blame judgment that was just waiting for confirmation. I call this “blame validation.”
Because blame is tied to the evolutionary need to protect oneself against harm-doers, attempts to eliminate it face an uphill and probably futile battle. This would be news to many of the Western institutions that laudably promote forgiveness, most prominently, Christianity and the mental health industry. The power of forgiveness may be Jesus’s most important and enduring message, as represented in the Sermon on the Mount. And yet, perhaps reflecting blame’s irresistibility to even the deified, Jesus engages the blame game, not only in the fig tree example, but against the Pharisees, and against virtually anyone who fails to accept his teaching, as in famous passages such as: “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?”
So if the allure of blame was strong enough to throw Jesus off his game, where does that leave the rest of us? The mental health community is almost unanimous in reviling blame and promoting forgiveness. This is reflected in books with titles such as: Take Charge Now! Powerful Techniques for Breaking the Blame Habit; The Complete Guide to Blaming: How to Play and How to Quit; The Great Blame Game Escape; On Being a Sh*t: Unkind Deeds and Cover-Ups in Everyday Life; Reframe Your Blame: How to Be Personally Accountable. These books are well-intentioned, but they provide advice that is awfully hard to follow. It is sort of like trying to convince your cat to leave the Nine Lives in her bowl until she has thought long and hard about whether it is really necessary. Or put another way, if Jesus can’t always refrain, good luck to the rest of us.
More importantly, though, I think that forgiveness can be overrated and blame undervalued. Should women who have been sexually abused forgive their attackers? Should children whose parents abandoned or mistreated them also be forgiving, especially if the parents continue to be uncaring or unreceptive? Women in abusive relationships who continually forgive their abusers run the risk of being seriously harmed. Furthermore, self-blame is a real and pervasive phenomenon: Victims who forgive their perpetrators may blame themselves and live with consequences such as low self-esteem and depression.
One last thing. Blame is a form of self-expression. By blaming people who have harmed us we are taking a stand. We are saying that we won’t accept mistreatment. We are saying that we expect to be treated with the same kindness, considerateness, and generosity that we extend to others. We are saying that we expect a certain standard of morality and civility from our relationship partners and from those who we enjoin with the privilege of governing us. As some philosophers have noted, the reluctance to blame, and the constant willingness to forgive, can represent a failure to take morality seriously.
So my advice is that if you are inclined to blame your partner for cheating on you, your father for mistreating you, or your boss for firing you, first step back and get your facts straight—the real facts, not the alternative ones. And if the facts are that blame is warranted, go right ahead and blame all you like. It might even be good for you.