The Blame Game

Scientists explain why people often blame others when things don’t work out

October 09, 2013

Researchers say that when it comes to assigning blame, we can’t always trust our own judgment.

When things go wrong and we’re to blame, we’re supposed to feel guilty. Right? Not necessarily.

It turns out that when we do something that causes a negative outcome, we actually feel less responsible for our actions. And, we see the entire situation differently than we would have if things had turned out well.

The “blame game” is nothing new. Behavior experts have long known that people push responsibility to others, or to outside factors, when things don’t work out. But new research from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London shows that this response is more than about wanting to escape blame — we actually don’t believe that what happened is our fault.

Who Me?

To learn more about the blame game, researchers conducted a study. They asked 34 participants to press keys that randomly produced three different noises. The noises were positive (amusement, laughter), negative (fear, disgust, or anger), or neutral.

The volunteers were asked to estimate the time that it took between when they pushed the button and when they heard the sound. Volunteers felt there was a longer lag time between their actions and the negative sounds than between their actions and the positive ones. In their minds, the negative outcomes were separate from their actions. Therefore, they were able to feel less responsible for them.

Taking the Blame

The researchers say that when it comes to assigning blame, we can’t always trust our own judgment. “Just because you don’t feel responsible, doesn’t mean you’re actually not,” says study author Patrick Haggard.

The findings suggest that perhaps more of us need to realize that unpleasant or negative situations may actually be our fault–even if we don’t see it that way. And taking more responsibility for our actions could lead to better relationships with others.

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