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Research Shows Powerful People Are Quick to Blame

The powerful assign more blame due to wrong assumptions about others’ options.

Key points

  • Powerful individuals tend to have more options in a variety of life situations and may assume the same about those lower in power.
  • The powerful, assuming those lower in power perceive as many choices as they do, see others’ mistakes as more intentional and unforgivable.
  • Before assigning blame, powerholders must remember that their assumptions about others’ freedom of choice are influenced by power.
Source: michael_schueller/Pixabay

When do we judge an employee harshly for a mistake they have made, punish a child for misbehaving, or engage in victim-blaming? When we understand a person’s action as freely chosen.

A study by Yin et al., published in the January 2022 issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science, suggests powerful individuals are quick to blame others because they perceive them to have more choice in a situation.

Having power and choice

Power means having control over valued resources.

Highly powerful people (e.g., political leaders, successful entrepreneurs) often rely on multiple bases of power, like reward power and coercive power.

Power affects how people feel and think.

For instance, compared to a powerless (or disempowered) person, a powerful (or empowered) individual experiences a greater sense of agency and control.

A problem occurs when powerholders assume everyone sees the world as they do—i.e., feels the same sense of mastery and control, perceives as many options and viable alternatives in a situation, and experiences the same freedom of choice (freedom to choose based on intentions).

In reality, powerless people tend to perceive a situation as offering them little control, agency, and choice.

So, why might powerholders who project their perception of choice onto the less powerful present a problem? Well, think about this: How would you decide to what extent an employee should be held responsible, blamed, or punished for poor performance?

Probably by asking if their actions were freely chosen. Now, suppose the accused employee replies he or she had perceived only a few good alternatives. If you were a high-power person (e.g., boss or supervisor), you might see that as an excuse and still assume the employee had many viable alternatives and yet freely chose the wrong or harmful course of action.

Thus, supervisors (as opposed to coworkers) are more likely to assume the actions reflect the employee’s true desires or intentions, meaning the employee is guilty and deserving of discipline and punishment.

The above analysis, of course, is theoretical only. To test whether power really does influence subjective perception of choice, Yin and collaborators conducted the following investigations.

Investigating power and perceptions of freedom of choice

Study 1

Sample: 363 (194 women); average age of 34 years.

There were two surveys.

The sense of power survey comprised eight items (e.g., “I can get others to do what I want”).

The blame survey began with a story about an employee named L.R. who had failed to submit her work, claiming she was busy with another project and “had no choice.” Participants were required to evaluate whether L.R. had a choice or should be held responsible and blamed.

Study 2

Sample: 393 (229 women); average age of 37 years.

Instead of simply measuring power, as above, this experiment manipulated participants’ sense of power by temporarily giving them high- or low-power roles (supervisor vs. subordinate) on a hypothetical work team.

The potentially blameworthy person was a transcriber from another work team who had made errors in transcribing an audio recording. The transcriber had supposedly sent a message apologizing for the errors and blaming them on an unstable internet connection and running out of time.

Once again, questions concerned whether the transcriber had options or no choice at all, should be held responsible, blamed, and punished (i.e., receive zero payment for the job).

Study 3

Sample: 352 undergraduates (162 women); mean age of 21 years.

Participants were placed in groups of three, in either high-power or low-power conditions (manager vs. subordinates). This placement was done, supposedly, based on the students’ responses to a leadership questionnaire (in reality, it was random).

After completing an easy task, as Manager or Subordinate A, each participant saw the work of the other two members of the group. While the manager and Subordinate A got their questions right, the hypothetical Subordinate B always got nearly half wrong and sent a message blaming the mistakes on lack of sleep.

As previously, students were asked about Subordinate B’s choices, then assigned blame and responsibility.

The influence of power on perceptions of freedom of choice

The results showed the following:

  • Individuals with a higher sense of power, compared to less powerful people, assumed that a potentially blameworthy party had more choice.
  • Those high in status and power showed a greater tendency to assign blame and mete out punishment.

So, the perception of others as having more choice is perhaps one reason leaders and powerful individuals are more likely to blame and punish.

And maybe the findings also explain why powerful individuals justify the status quo and power hierarchies: Powerful people might assume those in low-power positions have had viable alternatives and yet intentionally selected positions of less power and status (just as those in high-status positions deliberately pursued higher status and power).

In short, they reason that everyone’s socioeconomic status is deserved and justified.

Source: Rodrigo_SalomonHC/Pixabay


If you are in a position of low power, note that individuals who have power and status are more inclined to see your behavior as freely chosen and reflective of your desires, values, and beliefs.

Therefore, share your perceptions with those in high power. Do this regularly, not just after having made a mistake (so it does not come across as an excuse to avoid punishment).

If you are in a position of power (e.g., as a parent, doctor, supervisor, manager), you will likely perceive greater choice in a situation and erroneously assume that so do others (e.g., your children, patients, employees).

Therefore, adjust your assumptions before assigning blame to those lower in power. How? By asking questions to learn how they see things.

Remember, compared to the perceptions of folks with less power and status, your perceptions are more consequential.