Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

The blame’s afoot

March 7th, 2011

Blame my sisterWhen was the last time you blamed someone or something else for a mistake you made?

I did this recently, although it wasn’t actually my fault; the circumstances were just—



When something goes wrong, it’s really easy to blame the person who helped you, the person who should have helped you, the ridiculous restrictions on you, the lack of any kind of reasonable limits on other people, the impossible timeline, the impossible lack of timeline, the weather, the news, the latest fashion trends or your cat’s asthma. (Hey, his wheezing threw off my concentration!)

Unfortunately, making excuses and pointing fingers can have consequences beyond nasty looks from your coworkers or your cat. Recent research by Nathanael Fast and Larissa Tiedens has shown that blame is socially contagious.

Fast and Tiedens asked their study participants to read a news story in which an individual either took full responsibility for a failure or blamed it on other factors. The participants were later asked to assign blame for a personal or imagined failure. Those who had read the story in which someone shifted the blame were significantly more likely to do the same for their own (unrelated) failures.

Shift + BlameThe idea of establishing a culture of blaming others is pretty off-putting, but it’s not the only reason to avoid the blame game. Older studies have shown that blaming others for our own misfortunes harms our emotional well-being and physical health and damages our reputations. Not a winning combination.

It’s easy to see why accepting responsibility for errors will benefit our groups or teams or organizations; it’s harder to actually do it. Fortunately, Fast and Tiedens’ paper included a technique that may help. In one of their experiments, they asked their study participants to write a paragraph about values that were important to them (after reading the news story about someone else’s failure but before being asked to assign blame for a personal failure). The participants who did this appeared to be immunized against the social contagion of someone else’s finger pointing.

So, if you want the members of your world-changing organization to take responsibility for their own actions, setting a good example will actually help. And if you’re reluctant to step up and accept the fault yourself, it will be a bit easier if you first spend a minute thinking about the values that are important to you.

Myself, I plan to focus on personal responsibility and the importance of good veterinary care. One way or another, I’ve got to stop blaming that imaginary cat and get him an imaginary inhaler.

2 comments on 'The blame’s afoot'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'The blame’s afoot'.

  1. Tata

    7 Mar 11 at 11:13 am

    It’s true. I sank the Titanic.


    Carol Reply:

    I always suspected it. You wear such a shifty look whenever the conversation turns to icebergs.


Leave a Comment