First things first, why do we blame?
When we are in that over-busy, over-stressed and under-resourced environment, even the best of us can fall prey to blame storming, especially if profit is on the line. In these instances, blaming replaces thinking. It becomes a coping response; a knee-jerk reaction with deleterious effects. The worst consequence is to blame someone incorrectly. Humans have an instinctive sense of fairness, developed as early as three years old. When we believe an injustice has been levelled at us, we don’t react well. We tend to foster ill-will towards those who have wrongly blamed us. Thus, to blame someone wrongly can create a round trip of malevolence which may cycle and recycle. We need to break this pattern and to do so we need to understand why and how we blame. In doing so, we make better decisions in the workplace and promote better relationships amongst all. This blog will focus on why we blame. Future blogs will focus on how we blame and how not to blame.
In his article about blame psychology, Omar H Ali takes things right back to the beginning and (ironically), blames Aristotle. Aristotle first deduced the “law of the excluded middle” which purports that things can only be “A” or “not A.”. Over the centuries, this theory was incorporated into our cognitive structure and our emotional fabric. It has been used to great effect in the world of mathematics. However, unfortunately this binary approach to logic limits our psychological development. It encourages us to look at people as either one thing or another – clever or not, racist or not, courageous or not; and leaves little room for nuance. Ali believes it “undermines our power to develop environments where everyone can grow… because justice without development will only continue to leave us wanting”.
In the last hundred years, the media and the entertainment industries have accentuated this binary approach. The most successful movies and programmes revolve around the tenet that there is a goodie and there is a baddie. Interestingly, ancient Celtic folklore did not adhere to these story templates. In those tales, a baddie may do something beautifully virtuous and kind. Equally a goodie may do something harmful. There was never someone who was wholly evil and never someone good who didn’t occasionally slip up by engaging in devious behaviours. These were stories about people, in all our complexities. However, these adventures do not sell as well to the public because, as a human race, we find great comfort in the “happy every after” and the fact that good will prevail.
In the 1960s Melvin Lerner studied this behaviour and proposed what is now called the “just-world bias”. This is an innate human belief that good will be rewarded and that evil will be punished. It happens because our brains crave predictability. A repercussion of this is that we tend to blame victims of unfairness rather than disturb this comforting world view. Lerner’s research involved women who were asked to observe what appeared to be learning by punishment. When a learner, who was actually an actor, gave a wrong answer, she was the recipient of painful electric shocks. Afterwards the observers were asked to rate how likeable or morally worthy the learner appeared to be. One group of women saw the victim repeatedly shocked. These women tended to derogate her. But another group, which before being asked to characterize the victim, was told that she was not seriously harmed, did not engage in victim blaming. Lerner’s explanation is that if we witness an innocent get hurt, and there is no way of resolving this situation, our sense of a just world is violated. In order to reduce this threat, we then see the victim of deserving of their fate. Sadly, further research has shown that the more “innocent” the victim in an unresolved situation, the more she was devalued.
These studies clearly demonstrate that we have a desire or a habit of characterising people in terms of definites. In the cold light of day, away from a stressful situation, it is easy to argue rationally against this, but the truth is that our subconscious is processing our colleague in the next desk as ambitious or not ambitious, as conscientious or not conscientious, as sloppy or not sloppy; with little room for nuance. Our binary approach to life forces us to do so. When we tack on to this the “just world bias” (that the bad should be punished), we end up in a dire situation. If we have internally labelled someone as sloppy, ambitious and not conscientious, it is highly likely we will blame them when something goes wrong. It is even easier if our colleague was in an unresolved situation and is junior to us and thereby “innocent”. Depressingly, our subconscious commits to this outlook before we regard fact, so we review the fact through the emotional lens of blame. Happily, there is hope. Recognising the blame practice can stall the process and aid a better outcome. Being the individual who is fair, reasonable and doesn’t automatically blame will help calm a storm and make the workplace a better place for all.