The blame game – it’s not all your fault after all

We do like a blame game don’t we?  Everything has to be somebody”s fault.  When a football team loses a match, the manager must be at fault.  It couldn’t possibly be that the opposition just played better. Whenever there’s a scandal in government or a local authority, the top man must be to blame and should resign. “It was on his watch” (though more often it wasn’t, it just came to light on his watch).  It couldn’t be down to human error somewhere in the system.  Sometimes we’re so angry at the authorities we forget to blame the people who actually committed the crimes.  Sometimes we punish people for how they dealt with the PR fall-out, more than we do for the events themselves.

I had dozens of examples, but here’s just one.  When Tony Hayward, the beleaguered CEO of BP at the time of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, was grilled by Senators, one accusation stood out.  After accusing Hayward of stonewalling, one Senator, apoplectic with rage, demanded to know how many people had been fired at BP, in the wake of the disaster.  None?  None? He was almost spitting with rage.  Because if they weren’t firing a whole lot of people, they clearly weren’t taking this thing seriously.  (Actually BP was awaiting the findings of its inquiry before acting.)  Everything will be OK just as long as enough people get fired.  A specific named individual must be to blame and they must be held accountable.  And ideally flayed within an inch of their lives.

There’s clearly a need in humans to blame someone, when things go wrong.  Seems to me there are three possible explanations:

The first is cultural.  Storytelling requires that we have heroes and villains.  An episode which simply describes how and why events unfolded doesn’t have the necessary personal identification.  How do I know when to cheer and when to boo?  We want black and white.  Grey doesn’t cut it.  Even if grey is how things actually are.  But that begs further explanation surely.

The second is psychological.  The idea of ‘projection’ is well known among psychologists.  We seek to distance ourselves from bad stuff by attaching it to another person or group.  The best example is when we blame immigrants for all the ills of society, even though the data clearly shoes it’s nonsense.  The Nazis in 1920s Germany swept to power by explicitly blaming all the nation’s ills – losing the war, the recession, hyper-inflation – on an external party – the Jews.  Right wing parties always enjoy support during times of recession for exactly this reason.  (Yes I mean you, UKIP.)

The final one only occurred to me recently. It’s from evolutionary biology (isn’t everything?)  Knowing the difference between accidents and deliberate acts is an important part of learning to keep ourselves safe.  Blaming others for bad events is a requirement for protecting ourselves from future danger.  Experiments have shown that children pick up very quickly the difference between a genuine accident and one that is down to human activity – and it allows them to guard against future events.  The need to create a narrative around events has led us (by which I mostly mean journalism and the PR business) to exploit this mercilessly.

So there you are.  The blame game may be hideous and it may mean we hound good people out of their jobs.  But it’s not our fault.

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