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Finding Someone to Blame

What do we do when there is no obvious culprit?

One of the things we do when we get angry is assign blame. When something negative happens to us, we make a decision about who is responsible and why they did what they did. In fact, misattributing causation is associated with anger.

How, though, do we handle things when there is no obvious culprit? What do we do when there’s really no one to blame (i.e., bad weather, illness)? Or, what if we’re the ones to blame?

As a quick refresher, the chronically angry have a tendency to assign blame incorrectly. They might literally blame the wrong person for something or they might blame the right person but misattribute why it happened (“they did this on purpose” instead of “this was a simple mistake”).

Imagine how this might play out in the following circumstances.

  1. You are driving to a job interview and there is terrible weather that has traffic backed up considerably.
  2. You and your significant other are having a difficult time getting pregnant.
  3. You are on your way to the airport for an international flight and you can’t find your passport.

In each of these cases, we see a situation without an obvious culprit (or, in the case of the last one, we see a situation where you might actually be the culprit for misplacing your own passport). What do you do? It’s harder to be mad when there’s no clearly responsible party (part of the appraisal process is deciding if the provocation was deliberate, blameworthy, and punishable). Who do you blame?

We often see a variety of semi-irrational thoughts in these cases. Weather-induced traffic gets blamed on poor city planning, climate change, or even God. Infertility gets blamed on poor health habits or an inability to relax. The lost passport gets blamed on the passport, instead of the person who misplaced it (“where did that passport go” instead of “where did I put that passport”).

I describe them as semi-irrational because there’s a tiny bit of truth to most of them (maybe not the passport). Climate change is causing more catastrophic weather conditions and our infrastructure isn’t prepared for it. Health habits and stress do exacerbate infertility. These things are a little bit relevant (as part of a much larger puzzle of causes). That’s why we can so easily shift responsibility to them in our minds without realizing that we’re fooling ourselves.

What should we do in these circumstances? First, it’s okay to acknowledge that sometimes bad things happen without a particular responsible party. Second, try to adjust your focus from finding the offender to finding the solution. Part of the reason we look for the offender is that we don’t like it when things feel out of control. Focusing on a solution is a way of taking back some of that control.