Most of us are quick to assign blame. It’s like a reflex. At an instinctive level it seems right, even normal. The murderer, burglar, rapist, swindler is a bad and evil person and should be punished.
And the behaviour need not be criminal.
The same phenomenon is in play in our everyday lives. We might blame our sibling for being uncaring and jealous, or our boss for being dictatorial and micro-managing, and we’ll have plenty of evidence to back up such “truths” about people.
And having a blame reflex means …
we don’t need a lot of evidence.
Just one act—the inconsiderate lane change, the unfriendly expression, the indifferent remark—is enough for judgment and sentencing.
We’re all guilty of this and noticing this mechanism is the first step to stop needlessly damaging important relationships in your life.
Fundamental Attribution Error
In social psychology, our tendency to attribute bad behaviour to someone with no regard to what was going on for that person at the time—his mental, emotional state, prior training or instruction etc.—is called fundamental attribution error.
He did a bad thing because he’s a bad person. Case closed.
Yet we know this is not true, because we almost never make that mistake when we’re the accused.
When we’re doing the explaining a different phenomenon is at play: Actor-observer bias. Actor-Observer bias describes our tendency to ascribe our own motivation to situational factors and less to ourselves.
In our normal lives it’s called the excuse.
- You weren’t late, it was the traffic.
- You didn’t behave badly and stay out late, it was the alcohol.
- You didn’t miss the deadline, it was your boss giving you too much work.
When the interrogation lights are on you, it’s never your fault. There were other factors at play that any reasonable person must consider before assigning blame to you.
Here’s a short video I wish I had seen when I was a kid about this phenomenon.
What we can learn from Breaking Bad
Walter White the high school chemistry teacher protagonist is diagnosed with a cancer that gives him at most 2 years to live, and he’s confronted with leaving his wife and family with no financial support. While he’s in the depths of despair over his situation he happens to witness a past student of his escape from a drug bust and lo and behold he’s introduced to the insanely lucrative and criminal world of meth amphetamine drug dealing. He realises that his chemistry background makes him ideal to produce meth, the sales of which can take care of his family when he’s gone.
The show’s brilliance stems from providing the context for Walter becoming a criminal, how every experience with the underworld inexorably draws him deeper and deeper into a way of life from which he can’t escape; how context drives every choice he makes, and every choice he makes drives the next, and the next till he becomes a criminal of the worst kind.
You empathise because you see how his situations and experiences influence his decisions and you wonder if you—in his place—would act differently.
You get that it’s not entirely his fault—all the while marvelling at the mess he’s drawn into, and the true beast he’s becoming.
Everybody’s life is like that.
Trial lawyers exploit your fundamental attribution error
If you’re on a jury, or even on TV note how the prosecution wants you to believe that the defendant is just a bad person who should be punished, and the defence tries to get you to see the wider context—if you were in this person’s shoes, having the same experiences, misfortunes and pressures, you would have done exactly what he had done.
Controlling your blame reflex
Lawyers aren’t the only ones; politicians and the media exploit our tendency to make the Fundamental Attribution Error and it causes tremendous damage to society through unfair judgments and punishments to people because the full context behind their actions are almost never considered.
Being unfairly judged builds resentment, separation and rage that expresses itself in myriad unpleasant ways including violence.
Take a look at where in your life you are making the fundamental attribution error—with your spouse, your boss, your co-worker, the taxi-driver etc. Consider the circumstances, the full context behind the behaviour that you dislike and see if under the same circumstances, the same experiences you wouldn’t behave in the same way.
You’ll find that in most cases you would.
So cut them so slack.