Research Communications

The Blame Game 

Psychologist Mark Alicke offers a new view of how we blame—and suggests that playing the blame card is not always a bad thing

November 7, 2011

Think about the Garden of Eden story. You know how it goes: Adam blames Eve. Eve blames the serpent. God blames all three. In short, “the blame game commences,” as Ohio University psychologist Mark Alicke puts it.

Actually, in Alicke’s view, the blame game is even more fundamental than the Eden creation story. It’s evolutionary. Blame, he says, is linked to the inborn capacity to evaluate, which an organism uses to decide whether something is beneficial or a threat to its survival. Borrowing terminology from legal philosopher Joel Feinberg, Alicke says creatures use blame to “stain” things, marking them as harmful. Blaming is an essential “adaptive strategy,” he says—reflexive and “primitive.”

To illustrate, imagine you get out of bed at 3 a.m. to get a snack from the refrigerator. Just as you arrive at the fridge in the dark, you stub your toe hard. In swift response, you kick the refrigerator door.

“That’s how primitive blame is,” Alicke says.

The Blame Game
Illustration by Alix Northrup.

Blame is simply “a very natural thing to do,” Alicke continues. “Telling people not to evaluate, not to judge, is like telling them not to be hungry or not to think about sex. I’ve always been doubtful about trying to get people to not do the things they do most naturally.”

Being doubtful is an occupational hazard for Alicke. As a social psychologist, he’s professionally inclined to question the assumptions people make. He’s spent a good deal of his research career questioning the assumptions people make about themselves, a pursuit known as the psychology of self-identity. Human beings, Alicke has observed, routinely overestimate themselves as better than they actually are (self-enhancement) and work hard to maintain that illusion (self-protection), even “when reality sets in.” Alicke and Constantine Sedikides of the University of Southampton recently co-edited the Handbook of Self-Enhancement and Self-Protection (Guilford Press, 2010).

Alongside these studies, Alicke has maintained a fascination with the psychology of blame. More than 15 years ago, he defined what he calls the “culpable control model” to describe how humans judge and place blame. At the time Alicke was developing his theory, most existing blame models were based in the legal realm and assumed that when we ascribe blame, we do so based on rational assessment.

True to form, Alicke questioned the assumption of rationality. His alternative takes into account the impact of spontaneous negative (and sometimes, positive) evaluations. In Alicke’s view, our primal impulse to blame has a significant effect on our supposedly rational judgments—our desire to blame is automatically informed by our values and beliefs, and we justify the blame we place according to those feelings. In short, our initial estimation of a person’s blameworthiness prevails.

The Blame Game
Illustration by Alix Northrup.

Alicke and his colleagues have conducted a number of studies demonstrating the effects of “culpable control.” In one early study, participants were told that a car accident occurred as a young man was speeding home to hide either an anniversary present for his parents or a vial of cocaine. The circumstances of the wreck were ambiguous due to a partially obscured stop sign. As the culpable control model predicts, when the driver’s motive was to hide cocaine, his driving was cited as much more of a cause in the wreck than the blind stop sign, “but precisely the opposite was true when his motive was to hide an anniversary present,” Alicke notes. “Negative evaluations of the driver whose motive was to hide cocaine induced participants to skew the evidence to support their desire to blame him.”

In a later scenario Alicke presented to participants, a homeowner shoots and kills an intruder who is either a dangerous ex-convict or a physician-neighbor in the home to feed the cat (an arrangement made by the homeowner’s wife without his knowledge). Again, as Alicke’s model predicts, participants blamed the homeowner more when the victim was characterized positively.

In most situations, it’s just not possible to say with certainty whether a person intended to do wrong or played a causal role in an outcome. “But when we make such judgments, those judgments are very much influenced by our other kinds of evaluation,” Alicke says.

No matter the context, blaming involves a morally charged evaluation—we deem someone or something bad or wrong. Alicke’s work aims to explain how the moral judgments behind blaming work, and why we humans, he says, are so “steadfast in blaming others.”

Debating moral questions is a “basic tendency” for Alicke, which he attributes to his ancestry. “My great-grandfather was a Talmudic scholar, and he would sit in the synagogue all day debating obscure points of the Torah,” Alicke explains. “I think that’s basically my gig.”

In short, although Alicke is a professor of psychology, he’s a philosopher at heart. His career-long blending of social psychology and moral philosophy has often made him feel a bit “like Don Quixote tilting at windmills,” he says. As it turns out, Alicke was on the leading edge of a field only now coming into definition.

“Mark’s research supporting his culpable control model was ahead of its time,” says Joshua Greene, director of the Moral Cognition Lab at Harvard University. “It has been very influential in recent years as psychologists, philosophers, and legal scholars have devoted more attention to the psychology of blame and punishment.”

Alicke and Greene are both part of the field of moral psychology, which explores the cognitive and neural underpinnings of moral judgment and behavior. Spurred by converging research trends in the study of emotions, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, moral psychology is undergoing “a multidisciplinary renaissance,” writes prominent social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in the Handbook of Social Psychology. Psychologists, philosophers, legal theorists, neuroscientists, ethicists, and economists are all turning their attention to understanding how the moral mind and brain work.

“Moral psychology is really an exciting kind of cooperation,” Alicke says. “And it’s heartening to realize that maybe I’m not as bad a philosopher as I thought.”

As in any academic discipline in its infancy, scholars of moral psychology are actively defining their field by attending conferences, publishing articles, and establishing a journal. For his part, Alicke is updating his culpable control model. He points out that in the academic world, “you’re in better shape if people are paying attention enough to disagree,” and his own views on the psychology of blame attract their fair share of debate.

One major debate concerns whether negative emotional evaluations really skew moral judgment. The debate about emotions is, in effect, about “how rational or irrational people are,” Alicke says, especially in courtroom settings. Although he thinks the rule of law goes a long way toward promoting rationality, “if jurors are doing what I think they are doing, there are going to be a lot of unfair legal decisions made.

“A racist looking at a black person’s offense would say, ‘Yes, he intended it, he caused it,’” Alicke continues, “even if that’s not really the case, and the racist would be convinced that he or she has made a perfectly rational judgment.”

For Alicke, it comes down to evaluation, not emotion. “Our basic need to evaluate biases our judgment,” he says. “Emotions amplify that tendency, but evaluation is there first.”

Being an expert on the psychology of blame has its other challenges. For one thing, Alicke says he’s become a “disaster go-to guy.” After Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, for instance, reporters from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and other media outlets come calling to ask, Who’s to blame, and why are we blaming them?

Mark Alicke
Mark Alicke. Photo credit: Robb DeCamp.

Alicke admits reporters may finish their interviews feeling a bit frustrated, because the placement of blame is “so ambiguous.” After Hurricane Katrina, for example, it was easy for someone with a knee-jerk negative reaction to President Bush to hold him responsible and heap on the blame. As his culpable control model suggests, “for someone you dislike, the evidence gets skewed in a way that enhances their culpability,” Alicke says. In sum, “it’s nearly impossible to correct for our own personal biases.” And because it is much easier for people “to do more bad to you than to do too much good,” Alicke says, “we are more motivated to nail ‘bad’ people than promote ‘good’ ones.”

In the cases of the Katrina or Japan disasters, it would seem fitting to blame the forces of nature or God, “but most people don’t do that,” Alicke says. Pointing fingers at impersonal forces just doesn’t satisfy the strong tendency we humans have to assign blame. “We can’t do anything about God or nature, so we always turn to people,” he says. So Japanese officials were blamed for inadequate floodwalls and faulty building codes, and forecasters were blamed for insufficient predictions, and on and on. These politicians, officials, and forecasters may or may not be “villains” but that doesn’t really matter when it comes to blame. “Blame’s primitive nature dictates that people who wish to forgive must overcome the visceral satisfaction that the blame game delivers,” Alicke says. “When strong emotions are evoked, people blame first and ask questions later.”

Recalling the events of September 11, Alicke notes that “there will forever be conflicting ideas about the blameworthiness of various parties for the attack.” In large part, he says, this is because of the influence of “hindsight reasoning.” Alicke explains that, as many scientific studies have shown, once we know an event has occurred, the event then seems inevitable.

“So hindsight reasoning makes the events leading up to the 9/11 disaster seem more negligent,” he says. Another phenomenon at work in placing blame around 9/11 and other such disasters is “counterfactual reasoning,” which Alicke describes as “if only” thinking. “Imagining how different actions at each juncture could have prevented one or more crashes heightens people’s emotional reactions to the events and increases the intensity of their blame.”

When there is plenty of blame to go around, “the question becomes, when is blame justified, and when is it less justified?” Alicke says. His answer? “There are times when people blame when they shouldn’t, and there are situations where people don’t blame when they should.”

Note that Alicke says there are times when people should blame. Harvard University’s Joshua Greene says Alicke’s work “shows how quirky the psychology of blame is,” and perhaps the most unconventional aspect of Alicke’s theory is this: He thinks blaming can be a good thing.

We live in a forgiveness age. Guided by religious instruction as well as the self-help industry, we are urged to forgive and forget, let go and move on. Just as the field of moral psychology has flourished, so has the forgiveness field, featuring scholars such as psychologist Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford (University) Forgiveness Project. The basic premise of Luskin and others is that forgiving is good for us.

Alicke isn’t so sure. Ask him directly about forgiveness, and he squirms. After a little wry chuckling and a big sigh, though, he’ll admit he’s a “forgiveness skeptic.” Countless religious leaders and therapists tell us we can make a conscious choice to forgive, and Alicke acknowledges that many people do. But is that true forgiveness? He has his doubts.

Say a woman forgives her husband after he has stopped abusing her. “Maybe she really does forgive him,” Alicke says, “but what does that mean? We say it proves she has a strong character, that she can be magnanimous and move on. But it could also mean that she has a very weak sense of self. It all depends on the circumstances, on what wrongdoing is involved, and the conclusions you come to about what you think was going on.”

In other words, it all depends on our evaluation. For Alicke, forgiveness just isn’t natural, the way placing blame is. What’s more, blaming can be the right thing to do. In cases of intentional negligence or reckless wrongdoing, blame can be legitimate and justified, Alicke says. In short, there is such a thing as “good” blame.

“A good blamer is someone who is very clear at knowing when a person has done wrong,” Alicke says, “and who can effectively draw the line to not deal with that person anymore, but a good blamer is also someone who doesn’t draw that line too quickly.”

Given his immersion in the psychology of blame, you might think Alicke would be a pessimist, but he’s not. He’s working on a book that he hopes will illuminate research on the psychology of blame for his scholarly peers, but also help the rest of us feel better about our natural instinct to blame.

“Today, there are so many cultural forces, religious and otherwise, making us feel bad about who we are. I want to redress the balance of those forces,” he says. “It’s not that blame is always good—as always, it depends. But we’re human beings. We are who we are, and we don’t need to be beaten down by forces telling us to be something we are not.”

By Lauren Bryant

This article will appear in the Autumn/Winter 2011 issue of Perspectives magazine, which covers the research, scholarship, and creative activity of Ohio University faculty, staff, and students.

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