Why We Put the Blame On Others

We put blame on others more often than is warranted. We blame others when our children get hurt, when we lose a sports game, and when we show poor performance at work. However, these situations may cause us to miss out on opportunities to self-improve. In this blog I will show you how to take these opportunities to self-improve.

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I was on a holiday trip to the snow in the French Alpes with my five year old daughter. Next to skiing, she also liked sledding down a short slope. Although it was a rather flat slope, she could still develop considerable speed down this slope. She liked it a lot. Then it happened. As my daughter sled down the slope, a boy and his mother crossed it. They walked right onto the middle of the slope, without looking around at the children sledding down. I screamed, the mother screamed, my daughter steered away from the boy unable to stop, and the boy ran right into the sled. Luckily no one was badly hurt, except for a mild bruise or two.

Then the father of the boy walked up to me. What do you think he said to me? He appeared quite shaken and emotional from what had just happened. What do you expect his reaction to be? Would he apologize to my daughter? Would he be mad at my daughter? Think for a moment before reading on.

Of course you know the answer: he was very mad at me! I should have been more careful. I should have been on the sled as well and that alone would have prevented the collision. Of course, his son was not to blame. Why would he put all the blame on me, without assuming even a small amount of blame on his son?

Why We Put Blame on Others

Blaming is making others responsible for bad things that happen to us. Blaming others involves making someone else responsible for the choices and decisions that are actually our own responsibility. There are three main reasons why we blame others:

  1. Blaming others protects our ego. We cannot change the situation; whatever happened, happened (e.g., The collision with the sled has happened and my son is in pain.). However, we can change whether we ourselves are responsible and accountable for that situation. If we blame someone else, then someone else is responsible and accountable. There’s less effort involved in recognizing the contributions of others to a bad situation than in accepting the fact that we ourselves are actually at fault and changing our behavior so we don’t do it again. This helps us preserve our sense of self-esteem by avoiding awareness of our own flaws or failings.
  2. Blaming allows us to unload your emotions. The philosopher Pamela Hieronymi from the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) believes that we blame someone because we believe someone showed disregard of other people’s wellbeing (e.g., The father did not care if his daughter would hit anyone with her sled.). This judgement may easily lead to hostile emotions combined with a feeling of entitlement that the blame is deserved. We may feel great relief by loudly blaming someone else for our mistakes.
  3. We’re not very good at figuring out the causes of other people’s behavior. We may often feel that someone else could have prevented the situation, if only that person had acted differently (e.g., If only the father had been on the sled together with his daughter, this would not have happened.). We are not very good judging the difference between intent and outcome of other people’s actions and we often confuse the two. If an action leads to a bad outcome, then we easily judge the other person as having a bad intent.

Researchers discovered that many of us will take the credit if things go well in life, but put blame on others when things go bad. This is called the self-serving bias.

Self-serving bias in sports

Peter De Michele and his colleagues investigated self-serving bias in sports. Winning competitors assigned the win to personal factors that are internally caused and controlled. Losing competitors assigned their loss to situational factors, such as more under the control of others. Self-serving bias helps us to protect our ego when losing in sports activities.

Self-serving bias in the workplace

When performance in the workplace goes well, we assign the good performance to our personal contributions. However, when performance does not go well, we blame others for not contributing enough. When people become unemployed, they feel that societal explanations are more important than the individualistic explanations. Professor of Psychology Adrian Furnham provided unemployed people in Britain with a list of 20 commonly offered explanations for unemployment. Some explanations where individualistic (e.g., Unemployed people don’t try hard enough to get a job), other explanations where societal (e.g., An influx of immigrants have taken up all available jobs). Self-serving bias leads us to assign unemployment to societal explanations instead of individualistic explanations. We blame others to protect our ego.  

The last two years we have been collaborating virtually from our homes with our colleagues and clients. How does this affect our evaluations of performance? Researchers Joseph Walther and Natalya Bazarova investigated how people evaluate performance in a virtual setting. They had students from the same university collaborating virtually (same university) and students from different universities collaborating virtually (different university). How did this affect evaluations? When participants showed poor performance, they blamed their group members for causing this poor performance, but only when they were from different universities. When they were from the same university, then participants took more personal responsibility.

So being part of the same group makes us take more personal responsibility, whereas being part of a different group, makes us more likely to blame others. Thus, for good collaboration, it is important that people feel they are part of the same group. This makes it even more important to make you feel that you belong to the same group and invest in team building.

How To Avoid Shifting Blame

In order to improve collaboration and personal growth, it is important to avoid shifting blame. The first step in changing our behavior is to recognize and accept it. Next, we can use our ability to be self-compassionate to avoid self-serving bias. Self-compassion is your ability to recognize distress in yourself and commit to alleviating that distress. When you are self-compassionate, you are able to reduce your defensiveness and are better able to accept feedback to self-improve. According to Kristin Neff, Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, self-compassion involves the following components:

  1. Your ability to accept that everyone, including yourself, has a self-serving bias.
  2. Your ability to demonstrate self-kindness, especially when experiencing a personal failure.
  3. And finally, being able to identify uncomfortable thoughts without judging them.

Everyone makes mistakes, and when you make mistakes, it may help to re-frame these mistake as opportunities to learn. If you are a losing competitor in sports, it may help you identify the aspects that can make you win next time. If you are part of a (virtual) team at work, poor performance is an opportunity to identify how to collaborate more effectively. If your son is running across the slope and colliding with a sled, this is an opportunity to teach your son to ascend at the side of the slope. It may still happen that you blame someone improperly from time to time. We are human after all. But when that happens, just apologize.

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Niels Vink (1975) is a behavioral designer and sports enthusiast. He has Master degrees in Social Psychology (Leiden University) and Industrial Design Engineering (Delft University of Technology) and holds a PhD in Consumer Behavior. He lives and works (out) in Haarlem.

Want to know how you can get your diversity and inclusion programs, marketing, communication and sales in better shape? Drop me an email at niels@behavioralinsight.nl


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