A New Year’s Resolution: It’s Not Your Fault

Many of our decisions are driven by the situation, not our personal failures.

Posted Jan 01, 2021

We are told it is our fault. For climate change? Misinformation in social media? The spread of COVID-19? You are personally responsible. Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe it isn’t your fault.

We are constantly told things are our fault. We live in a society focused on personal responsibility. I would almost say a cult of personal responsibility. Everything is attributed to us as individuals. Climate change? Learn your carbon footprint, change your light bulbs, and drive less. COVID? You should wear a mask, stay home, and wash your hands. Misinformation in social media? Learn to be a better critical thinker and stop sharing every meme that comes in front of you.

I am confident that you’ve heard and read comments like these. I’ve written some of them since I have written a lot about the spread of misinformation in social media.

We also apply this feeling of personal responsibility to all sorts of problems. We use personal responsibility to explain why people are poor (they are unwilling to work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps). We also focus on ourselves when explaining why we are having problems. Everything is our personal fault, our personal responsibility to change and fix.

And we often write New Year’s Resolutions along these lines. Promising to change, to do better, and be better.

But I want to change the conversation this year. So my New Year’s Resolution is to say it isn’t all my fault. It isn’t your fault. The problems in the world and our lives are not completely our personal responsibilities. Recognizing this is important. Recognizing this allows us to focus on what we can do, and crucially treat ourselves and others with more kindness.

I want to introduce you to a key concept in psychology: The Fundamental Attribution Error. We make attributions for behaviors; for why people including ourselves do various things. In any situation, there are a variety of factors that influence how people respond. Some factors are things about us as individuals. Our values, our personality, our approach to information, our experiences. But other factors reflect the situation. The available options, the nature of information presented, the support or lack thereof from others, the costs and rewards for behaviors. When we explain why people do things, we can focus on the person or the situation. She did that because of her values. He did that because there were no other real options.

The fundamental attribution error is that we overemphasize the role of the person and often ignore the power of the situation (Ross, 1977). Instead of focusing on the person and their choices, values, and thinking, we could talk about the situation. Let’s consider some of these large problems for our society as examples.

Consider climate change. We are told to examine our carbon footprint – that is, how much energy we use that results in a release of carbon into the atmosphere. Next, to reduce your carbon footprint, you should drive less. After all, you could drive less. You could choose other transportation options. Maybe take the bus or ride a bike. So climate change is your fault.

But in terms of transportation, almost everyone is doing the same things you are. They drive rather than take a bus or ride a bike. When that’s the case, it really isn’t about you. It isn’t about me. Instead, the situation has given us limited options. Maybe there isn’t reasonable public transportation in your neighborhood. Most likely, there aren’t safe bike routes or a way to clean up when you get to work. The entire transportation system is designed for you to drive a car. Doing something different requires a lot of extra effort, time, and often money. Your decision to use a car isn’t your fault. It is the fault of the system that is designed for people to drive. Other systems are possible (and even exist in some places). When people are given support to make different decisions, they often do. This means your carbon footprint isn’t really yours. It reflects the transportation system in your community and country.

And let’s consider the spread of misinformation in social media. Yes, we can all do better to reduce misinformation. As I have written, we can slow down and check before sharing information – especially if it something that we would like to be true. But I’ve also constantly noted that the entire social media and news structure is feeding you misinformation. Actually, many media platforms are actively promoting misinformation – apparently, this can be lucrative. Misinformation is what people see; and we see the same misinformation repeatedly. Misinformation is presented by supposedly reliable news sources. In this context, the situation leads many people to become unwitting agents in the spread of misinformation. The context, the situation, the constant promotion of misinformation leads people to spread misinformation. This isn’t always about a lack of critical thinking. In many cases, very intelligent people can find themselves falling down rabbit holes of misinformation, into the Alice in Wonderland upside-down world in which a conspiracy seems reasonable. But without social media and news media promoting such information, people would not be misled as often. When people spread misinformation, it isn’t because they are bad people. Instead, the media environment is the cause of the problem and is harming those individuals.

And since we are considering the end of 2020 and making resolutions for 2021, we should think about COVID. Maybe we can resolve to follow public health recommendations. Are you wearing a mask? Some people have refused to wear masks. They have also protested mask wearing. Wearing a mask, social distancing, avoiding crowds (particularly indoors) is critical to slowing the spread of this virus. But people don’t. Is it something about them? Maybe they are freedom-loving. Maybe they don’t believe COVID is real. Sure, we can choose to focus on the individual – blaming them.

But we should really acknowledge that they have been in an environment that has led them to these views. They hear through some news media that COVID isn’t real, or isn’t that dangerous, or that masks don’t work. Many political leaders in the U.S. have stated such things. I might wish they would change their news stations or follow different leaders. But should I focus on their behaviors or the failure of the system? To make it worse, the systems have not supported people trying to make good decisions. Can you easily get a COVID test? When you do, will you get the results quickly enough to know the risks? Have you been given masks? Have you been given support to be able to afford staying home from work? In the U.S., the systems have not made it easy to do the right things. Other countries have provided more accurate information and better support. With better systems in many countries, the spread of COVID was reduced and fewer people died. So how shall we explain why some people aren’t following basic health information? Is it their personal responsibility or the nature of the system in which they are living?

In many of these cases, we have large problems. But we are told that we are personally responsible. And trying to change your behavior can often feel like swimming upstream. Everything about the system is designed for you to turn around and swim downstream, to go with the flow. People are swept away by the current. Should we blame them for being overwhelmed by the strong current?

For me, riding the bus turns a 15-minute car ride into an hour-long commute. That’s not reasonable. And that is the nature of the system. It isn’t designed to support the behaviors we want people to do.

But there are solutions. The solutions must involve changes to the systems. If we want people to do different things, we should change the situation to make the preferred action the easy one. You want people to lower their carbon footprint? Make the buses cheaper and more convenient. Don’t blame people for going with the flow. Change the flow.

So for the New Year, it isn’t your fault. Of course, you should always do your best. But these are big problems. You are not personally responsible. If we want to solve the world’s problems, we need to change the systems. Each of us can make some contributions by our decisions. But we can also help create the systems that will make it easier for everyone. Change will need to occur in the systems that encourage and direct individual decisions. Don’t be angry when someone is overwhelmed by the current of that powerful river. Do your best, but also cut yourself some slack. Happy New Year.

References

Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 173-220). Academic Press.