March 20, 2014

Blaming people never contributes to progress

When something has gone wrong we are often inclined to assigning blame to individuals or groups. It happens in families, in schools, in companies, and in politics. The assumption is apparently that assigning blame is useful and necessary for solving the problems in question. But is this true? I don't think it is.

I think that blaming people never contributes to progress. The reason is that the person who is blamed will view this as an attack and will try to defend himself. As psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson show in their book Mistakes were made but not by me, people seldom agree with accusations against them. In the way in which people view reality and their own choices and behaviors, a mechanism of self-justification operates.

We perceive reality to some degree in a self-serving way. We think we do often think we have made culpable mistakes. When things go wrong, we blame others or the circumstances which have hindered us. Or we did not have the necessary information to make the right choice. It may seem strange or objectionable that we act like this (nearly all of us are vulnerable to this serf-serving bias, whether we are aware of it or not) but it is actually not so strange.

As Kathryn Schulz explains in her book Being wrong we normally assume that we are mostly right in our opinions and choices. Her argument is strong. If we would think that our opinion was incorrect we would have a different opinion. If we would think that our choice was wrong we would not make it.

That is why blaming people does not work. People will probably not think you are right. They will defend themselves against the accusation and will brace themselves. They will get into a negative state of mind which will remove most nuance from their thinking and block cooperation. Solution-focused trainer who work with domestic violence offenders don't ask of these clients to admit their guilt. Instead, they work with these clients to help them define and realize positive life goals (read more). And this works.

My thesis is: blaming people never contributes to progress. If, after the assignment of blame there is still progress, I think this will only be due to the fact that the damage which has been caused by the assignment of the blame has been 'repaired' (for example by conciliatory words).

What do you think about this?


  1. I agree blame never works; so the question is why do we keep doing it?

    A reason you mention is that it's an inherent failing of intelligence (of course we think we are right). Another is that it's self-defence (we don't want the consequences of being blamed).

    Still, given it never works you'd think groups would have developed processes so that blame-storming doesn't happen. Have you see blame-proof companies?

  2. Hi David,

    Thanks. Those are interesting question, I think. I have not seen compleet blame-free companies but I do some small scale practically blame-free environments.

    I don't think there is some process of automatic evolution in the direction of blamelessness. Although it does not work, we may not notice that it does not work.

    Consider this example: John blames Pete for this or that. Pete becomes defensive and angry. The situation escalates and they get into an argument. At a certain point John apologizes and says he should not have said some of the things he said. Pete also apologizes. A de-escalation happens. They come to some agreements and the matter is settled. Afterwards, John reflects on the situation and concludes that his confrontation was 'apparently' necessary to get it all out in the open. He thinks that the blame part was necessary for the end result.

    My thesis is that the end result was achieved depite of the blame part and thanks to the appeasement efforts and what happened after that.

  3. I think it is helpful to understand why people seek to blame others for bad things that happen. The desire to blame is an emotional reaction to unresolved needs and a number of determining preferences.

    1. A need for causality. When something bad happens, if we can't explain why it happened, we can't predict whether it will happen again.

    2. A preference for simplistic causality. If the explanation is too complex, we won't be able to make our predictions quickly enough or reliably enough to be able to respond if it happens again. That's why people have a tendency to reject more nuanced explanations.

    3. A preference for agentic explanations. If the cause of a bad event can be put down to the choices or actions of another human, then that increases our chances of being able both to predict and to prevent future occurences by controlling or influencing that person.

    On top of these drivers, there is the tendency to prefer resolving our emotional discomfort rather than solving the problem. When we blame others we are attempting to make ourselves feel better not trying to fix the situation. But we often deny this because self-justification kicks in for the blamers as well as for the blamed.

    1. Thanks, David. I think such factors may indeed play a role as you suggest. I think such psychological tendencies have been shaped into us by natural selection. They may make it more understandable why we have a tendency to blame. Yet we are still faced with the ineffectiveness of the blame game. So our callenge is to find ways to counter these tendencies/needs.

    2. We both know that a progress- or solution focused approach is more likely to achieve positive results than the blame game. However, if that approach is perceived as taking away people's sense of certainty, sense of comprehensibility, and sense of control, and it is not seen as providing them with a way to deal with their feelings, it will not be welcomed.

      Any change in behaviour has to start by helping people to realise that their instinctive responses are valid even if they are not helpful, otherwise they will fight against you to defend those feelings.

  4. I'm enjoying a book called Creativity Inc. by Ed Cantwell, about the animation company Pixar. It sounds pretty close to blame-free, because they've devleoped a culture and hired the kind of people who want to make great animated movies with their peers, not make themselves look great compared to their peers!


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