Blame Contagion

When divorcing couples discuss why their marriage went bad or how the divorce is likely to affect their children, they often try to outdo one another in their attempts to shift blame rather than accepting responsibility.  And for couples whose goal is to conduct an uncontested divorce online, tit-for-tat blaming is a sure-fire way to end up in a lawyer’s office.

Blaming others rather than accepting responsibility for one’s own mistakes simply doesn’t work. Studies find that people who blame others learn less from experience, lose credibility, and perform less well than those who take responsibility for their mistakes. The same applies to people working with others towards a particular goal, such as couples settling their own divorce, workgroups tackling a specific task, or families planning a vacation. When such groups resort to blaming whenever they hit an impasse, they are less creative, less focused on learning, and less productive.

As research has shown, however, changing the culture of blame isn’t easy: blaming is like a virus, it is highly contagious. Findings published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by psychologists Nathanael Fast and Larissa Tiedens, demonstrated that simply being exposed to someone blaming others for a mistake was enough to trigger people to turn around and blame others for entirely unrelated failures.

The subjects in their experiments read about a special election in California in 2005 to fund several initiatives proposed by the governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. None of the initiatives passed. Some subjects read a version in which the governor blamed special interests for the defeat; others read a version in which the government took responsibility for the defeat.

Subsequently, the subjects were asked to write a short essay about personal failure. Subjects who had read the version in which the governor blamed special interests were twice as likely to blame others for their personal failure compared to the group who read the version in which the governor accepted responsibility for the election defeat. The researchers found the same pattern when they varied the stories the subjects read, such as who was to blame for someone not finding a job or an organization’s poor money management.

What drives the contagion of blame? The felt need to protect one’s self-image. When we observe others defend their egos, we reflexively defend our own.  Dr. Fast speculates that the blame virus spreads like a chain reaction: a father observes a Republican blame a Democrat for a failed legislative initiative; the father then turns around and blames his wife for the dog’s mess on the carpet. Their son, having witnessed this interaction, subsequently blames his poor math grade on an incompetent teacher. Interestingly, Fast and Tiedens found that they could inoculate subjects from being infected by another’s blame attributions when they directed the subjects to affirm their self-worth (by writing a paragraph about one of their important core values) before describing an experience of personal failure.

These findings provide clues about the practical steps you can take to interrupt the spread of blame:

  • Complain, don’t blame. If someone else’s mistakes must be addressed, do so constructively, with an emphasis upon what can be learned, rather than who is at fault: “I’m not interested in listening to your threats. Please find a different approach.”
  • Take responsibility. Resist the temptation to blame others when you make a mistake.  This is particularly important if you are in a position of authority or have a great deal of influence within the family. By taking responsibility, you make it safe for others to take responsibility: “I got off on the wrong foot, I’d like to start again.”
  • Maintain a focus on learning. Foster a culture in which mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn, not opportunities to be humiliated.  One way to do so is to reward others for demonstrating what they’ve learned from a mistake: “I can see a real change in how you’re approaching this problem, I appreciate that.”

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