It's Not My Fault. The Millennial Answer to Everything!

These tragic examples explain why culpability is so elusive these days

Posted Aug 09, 2017

On August 1, 2017, the parents of 12-year old Mallory Grossman filed suit in N.J. Superior Court alleging that the school district where their daughter attended sixth-grade was at least partially responsible for her death. Sadly, Mallory committed suicide, purportedly based upon relentless cyberbullying and online harassment, an escalating epidemic among adolescents.  While this tragic death may have been prevented in many ways, one allegation in the lawsuit contended that the school district, not the parents, was accountable for the lack of intervention. In an interview, Grossman family attorney Bruce Nagel, while holding up an iPhone (that her parents purchased), cast blame for the wrongful death on cellphone technology stating, "This small device can be a lethal weapon in the hands of the wrong child."

Source: Bobby Hoffman/slidebot/used with permission

Many other rampant examples of culpability grace the news headlines including parents who blamed the emotional distress of their 8-year old transgender daughter on school officials, to former FBI director James Comey being held responsible for Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 presidential election. From the blistering tweets of President Trump suggesting that a media conspiracy undermines his popularity, to groveling students attributing their scholastic failures to insensitive instructors, difficult test items, or subjectively determined higher priorities, we have evolved into a society of blame casters.  What do all of these examples have in common?—no admission of personal accountability for the result of our actions (or inactions)…a stereotype closely aligned with many conventional descriptions of millennials.

Three reasons why failure is blamed on others

The practice of attributing wrongdoing, mistakes, and undesired outcomes to external sources can be attributed to a cornucopia of causes. One popular explanation for the “blame game” is that shifting accountability is an unconscious defense mechanism—designed to insulate our fragile egos from perceived threats that blemish our self-image and potentially our self-esteem. After all, it makes sense that if we hold ourselves responsible for tragic events, or even little mistakes, we potentially risk feeling bad, guilty, or even depressed.  In my latest book “Hack Your Motivation: Over 50 Science-Based Strategies to Improve Performance,” I outlined at least three other research-based explanations why “externalizing” blame is dangerous, as well as describe several more beneficial alternatives that reduce anxiety and stress when things go wrong.  

Bobby Hoffman/slidebot/used with permission
Source: Bobby Hoffman/slidebot/used with permission

First, humans look for causes when bad things happen. Children as young as two are obsessed with asking the question “Why?” for most events they experience. Adults, too, seek patterns and justification to help make sense of the world. If you watch TV crime dramas, you know the prosecution looks for a motive to get a conviction. Lawyers need to explain to the jury why the criminal did what he/she did. But there are two problems with our incessant quest to understand the world: first, we often attribute an event to the wrong cause, and second, we usually fixate on a simple solution rather than a complex one. For example, it’s much easier (cognitively speaking) to blame a traffic accident on bad weather, or another driver, than to admit we are at fault.

Second, our understanding of what causes things to happen is complicated by the reality that we are prone to thinking fallacies— judgment errors that we fall into when evaluating physical and psychological phenomena. These errors include inappropriate generalization (all dogs are vicious), falling prey to the either/or conundrum (people are good or evil, but not both), thinking there are no alternative explanations (an unexplained noise is definitely a ghost), and, of course, coincidence (the outcome was the result of pure chance, beyond any human intervention or control). Between thinking fallacies and our preference for obvious, simple explanations, we struggle to understand our own motives and behaviors.  But there is one more less obvious and rarely discussed psychological factor that influences our flagrant finger pointing.

The power of control beliefs

We make choices and develop beliefs based on how much control or influence we think we have over significant events, decisions, and events in our life. In psychology, we talk about "locus of control"—where people think control resides. People with an internal locus of control believe that they have control over their lives; these people take responsibility whether things go right or wrong. People who have an external locus of control believe forces are beyond their control—they feel subject to other people’s whims and to immutable laws of nature.

Bobby Hoffman/slidebot/used with permission
Source: Bobby Hoffman/slidebot/used with permission

Not surprisingly, people with an external locus of control believe in things like luck, fatalism, and being “in the right place at the right time.” These different orientations toward agency produce different approaches to setting goals and implementing plans. People with an internal locus of control make deliberate and intentional plans, then act to achieve desired outcomes. In contrast, people with an external locus of control sit back and watch the world unfold around them—this is a much more passive approach to navigating life. In other words, people attribute their success or failure to either themselves or to others.

As you can probably guess external control beliefs are dangerous because the consequences of such a belief leads to lack of effort, apathy at work and in personal relationships, and the beliefs are related to a general sense of malaise because we think we are at the mercy of the world. While it is impossible to know for sure, if Mallory Grossman’s parents had an internal control orientation and did not give her a cellphone, she might be alive today. Similarly, if Hillary Clinton did not blame external events for her political demise and instead believed she had control of her campaign by using a different political strategy, perhaps you would not have to endure the daily Twitter rants from Donald Trump.

Cultivating internal control beliefs

Bobby Hoffman/slidebot/used with permission
Source: Bobby Hoffman/slidebot/used with permission

In “Hack Your Motivation,” I described a strategy that I call the Inside Out Hack. The Hack contends that internal control beliefs are instrumental for success and we should strive toward cultivating an internal locus in ourselves and others. People who have internal attributions are more willing to make mistakes and take risks, and are seen by others as extroverted overachievers. The internal attributors rarely sit back, because they feel compelled to take action. While some people’s attributions remain stable across all types of tasks, others’ attributions change based on the task. One aspect of attributions never changes: our control beliefs determine how much work we will put toward achieving goals. If we don’t believe we have much control over outcomes, then it makes little sense to invest significant effort in completing a task.

To nurture internal control beliefs, begin by suspending the thinking patterns described earlier.  When biased thinking that shackles our reasoning is removed, we can approach problems not as reasons to find fault in ourselves or others, but as opportunities to find solutions. Next, explore how positive outcomes are achieved. One strategy is to write down a step-by-step list of the assumptions that contribute to a desired outcome. For example, how can you avoid getting lost on a road trip? Remember, getting lost is never only because you don’t know the area. It might also be because you don’t prepare in advance (buying a map, printing out directions), because you are embarrassed to ask for directions, or because you get spaced out while driving and miss your exit—all factors that are controllable with conscious effort.

After your outcome planning, set achievable goals that can be reached with minimal effort and begin to take steps toward achieving success.  When you know the degree of challenge you are willing to accept, you can determine the best course of action. Also, gain support from your colleagues, friends, and the important people in your life because social support is a powerful motivation. People with external control beliefs need plenty of encouragement, especially through evidence that directly connects effort to outcomes. People who already believe they are capable of reaching goals—those with a more pronounced internal locus of control—still need support, but it can be task-focused rather than person-focused.

Finally, if you need to accelerate internal control beliefs, or you know someone else who does, there are many simple remedies in the new book “Hack Your Motivation: Over 50 Science-Based Strategies to Improve Performance.” The book transforms the latest scientific evidence from psychology, education, and business into easy-to-understand and quick-to-use strategies that quickly solve most motivational challenges. If you prefer free information and want daily updates and original content on motivation, leadership, learning, and peak performance follow me on Twitter @ifoundmo#HackYourMotivation

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