Blame, Fault, and Personal Attribution

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

The English phrase “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” has an interesting implication; it means to tell us that there are certain conditions under which we may become culpable for our own having been deceived by others.

But why? Why should you be at fault for being deceived a second time, when you were not the first time? How does that make sense?

Today the topic that this article will explore is that of personal attribution, and the concepts of blame, fault, and credit.

The problems with how we think about blame

Let’s dive in by talking about some of the problems with how we approach the concept of blame in our everyday life, we’ll begin with a story that illustrates some of these.

Imagine that you are at an important client meeting with your colleague Andrew on a Monday morning. This client is sharp and requires your best talent and thinking in dealing with them, there is no room for messing around or doing a sub-par job.

But today Andrew is not performing as he usually does. Firstly, he was late for the meeting, something which you find unacceptable. Furthermore, he seems to be reacting too slowly to what the client is saying. He seems distracted by something. At several points the client asked him a direct question and he didn’t seem to get the question or gave an unsatisfactory answer, and the client could also tell that something is wrong. You try your best to cover for your colleague, but get a bit frustrated in the process. He simply did a terrible job in this meeting and you can feel this is having a negative impact on the client’s business and their relationship with you.

At the end of the meeting you come out and, with some annoyance, start to approach Andrew about what just happened there.

(Let’s pause for a second here. At this point, you still have a relatively open mind, but are manifesting some annoyance at your Andrew’s performance. Overall, in your mind, you are blaming Andrew at this time.)

“What is up with you today buddy? You certainly weren’t your best in there, and it had a negative impact on the client’s perception of us.” you ask.

What he says next surprises you.

“Yeah look I’m so sorry. I was in hospital all night with my daughter, she got something stuck in her throat and was choking. She almost died last night. I am exhausted.”

At this point you experience a paradigm shift. Whoa. Wow. I hope his daughter is OK! A flurry of mixed feelings come to you, on the one hand, you have a massive new sense of compassion for Andrew — after all he even came out, without a single complaint, to a client meeting first thing in the morning after a night at the hospital with his daughter. At the same time, there’s still a small part of you that blames him; you think “Why didn’t you just say something?? We could have cancelled the meeting I’m sure the client would have understood.” — but for the most part your sense of blame has shifted, you think to yourself “hey man, this wasn’t his fault, poor guy, wow”.

“I’m sorry”, you say to him. And the day goes on.

Imagine however that, later on in the day, you become privy to further information about Andrew’s plight. Somehow, you overhear him on the phone to his wife Lucy defending himself. You see, it turns out that the reason his 10 month old daughter suffocated and almost died was actually because he was babysitting her at the time (Lucy was away), but he decided to get drunk and throw some objects around in the house, before going to his bedroom and effectively ignoring his 10 month old. She picked up one of the pieces of chalk that he’d thrown and swallowed it, almost killing her.

Now how has your perception of Andrew changed? Probably it was swung the other way –“what an idiot!” you think, “how could he be so negligent?!”.

You approach him later on in the day in private to talk, he is clearly distraught at this time and not performing well in his work. You care for Andrew, but you also care for your company and need to sort out this issue.

“Look man, I overheard you talking with Lucy. Is it true that you got drunk last night and that’s the reason your daughter choked?”

He bursts into tears. He admits to you that this is true. It is his own negligence that caused his daughter’s near death.

At this point you feel again frustrated with this guy. What is up with him? But then he goes on to explain:

“I’ve been having a really difficult time recently because Lucy has walked out on me and is sleeping with another guy. I know that’s where she was last night because she has been at his place this whole week. I’m struggling to keep my marriage together and I don’t have the energy to be a full time dad and a full time employee. I don’t know what to do.”

Suddenly you again feel a slight paradigm shift. Your anger and blame turn to pity. “This poor fellow” you start to think.

You leave him and think about it for a bit. You then remember that it so happens one of your other colleagues is Lucy’s friend, so you approach her.

“I’m worried about Andrew” you begin, “he’s not been himself lately and I think he’s going through a really tough time at home, poor guy”. Your colleague however does not share your concern. She responds to your words with judgement and disdain for Andrew, she says “Well, you should be feeling sorry about Lucy! Andrew hit her the other day. I met up with her and I saw the bruises. It was horrible. That guy should be locked up.”

You are again taken back. More and more, this seems like Andrew’s problem.

I’ve intentionally constructed this story to invoke a kind of “binary blame” reaction from the reader. At each point of the story, you become privy to an additional piece of information that shifts your attribution of culpability on Andrew’s part, almost entirely each time, to the other side (the “blame pendulum”).

  1. At first, he’s at fault for not performing, then;
  2. Poor guy being in hospital all night with his 10 month old daughter, then;
  3. What a jerk for getting drunk while babysitting a 10 month old! Then;
  4. Poor guy, his wife is cheating on him brazenly and his marriage is falling apart, then;
  5. Wait what? He’s physically abused her?!
  6. And so on

This story could go on, but the point is clear enough. The question remains: Now who to blame?

The problem with “binary” blame

The problem is that in so many of our day to day scenarios we view blame as a binary property: it’s either entirely one person’s fault, or entirely another’s. We don’t necessarily see in the nuance of colour, instead looking in a polarising, “black and white” way. So many institutions in the world perpetuate this way of thinking (for example, politics). But it’s flawed.

In Chinese there’s a dual-direction phrase:

  • “可恨之人必有可怜之处” — “people who could be hated, must have pitiful points”
  • “可怜之人必有可恨之处” — “people who could be pitied, must have hateable points”

It reminds us of the complex nature of blame and attribution. Returning to Andrew’s story, if we keep telling it I think eventually the binary blame would break down as more and more information comes through. We learn of his rough childhood. We learn of his abusive behaviour. We learn of his brilliant and professional mind, and so on.

So “blame” cannot be reasonably be binary in most situations. Reality is more complex. 

Philosophical argument; we are always a part of our own problems

Next let’s talk about a simple philosophical argument: we are always a part of our own problems.

This is easily made:

“Imagine a universe where you don’t exist, but everything else does. You were simply never born. Now, realise that, in a universe where you don’t exist, you never have any problems either.”

Another way to say this is:

“What is the one thing that all of your problems have in common? You.”

We often tend to think that we interact with the universe as an independent party. Quite often, we underestimate the impact of our own presence in the universe, on us. As observers in the universe we have an impact that which we observe, and we have an impact on ourselves.

So we are always play a part in our problems. “It takes two to tango.”

Victims of circumstance

But is this way of thinking “victim blaming”? Saying “the fact that you exist leads you to having problems” seems to be quite unfair!

Reality is; we are all victims of our circumstances, as well as beneficiaries.

Interestingly people who focus on how they are victims of circumstances tend to be less happy, while those who focus on how they are beneficiaries of their circumstances tend to be happier. This applies around the board, almost independent of what the circumstances actually are! — This is the impact of gratitude. It also has implications on where we place the locus of control in our lives; is it external circumstances that define who we are? Or internal choices and actions? Which do we nudge ourselves more towards?

So we are all victims of our circumstances, as well as beneficiaries. 

Blame and Participation

Let’s extend these concepts by talking about our participation in our problems. Again, let’s do this with an example.

Imagine a girl gets raped while hanging out at her friend’s house one night and her and her friend having a few drinks. There’s no other information — that’s what we know.

Now, let’s talk about blame.

Women should be free to do or wear whatever they want without being raped by men. If a women gets raped, that is, a man forces her into sexual activity without her consent, then that is always the man’s fault. We should not blame the girl. It’s that simple. She is not at fault — end of “blame” story.

However, as I will illustrate, even if something is not explicitly our fault, or even remotely our fault, in many cases we could do things differently in ways that lead to more pleasant outcomes for us and others. In this case, the obvious thing that should be done differently is the guy should keep his pants on. That’s why it’s his fault that he raped the girl. But that doesn’t mean the girl is powerless in life to influence the probabilities of bad things happening to her.

When I was a teenager I remember talking with my dad about car accidents. We were talking about the concept of defensive driving. I remember asking him “why drive in this way, if when someone runs into the back of your car it’s their fault anyway and they have to pay for the repairs?”, he responded “because regardless of whose fault it is, I have to live with a banged-up car!”

Similarly in the rape case. It is not the girl’s fault. We got that. The guy should be punished, and compensation given to the girl. However, that does not mean that in life there aren’t different ways of doing things that lead us to better outcomes for ourselves and others. On a simple level; in many cases we can simply avoid circumstances where bad things tend to happen. There is surely a correlation between defensive driving and less accidents occurring for the defensive driver, for example.

A few years ago my wife and I got mugged while at Parramatta river one night. We reported the incident to the police. Of course — that sucked. But — we never went back to Parramatta river at night. We also never got mugged again (so far, touch wood). One has to be at Parramatta river at night to be mugged at Parramatta river at night. I can’t change the river or the crime rate (though it is within my rights to complain about it through the correct channels to advocate for change), but I can change where I hang out at night to reduce the probabilities of unpleasant experiences. It’s not my fault that I got mugged — I was a victim, but that doesn’t mean there are not things that could be done differently by me to avoid unpleasant experiences for myself and others.

The problems with blame as a construct

Blame is an important concept for a healthy society to have. Without the idea of blame, law cannot function, punishment cannot justly be dealt, victims cannot be compensated, and justice cannot be enacted. In societies where blame is not appropriately allocated, everyone is worse off for it, especially the victims.

However, there are bounds to where the construct of blame is useful. That’s what is being explored in this article.

Namely, often blame becomes a smokescreen that we hide behind that prevents us from taking positive action in our own lives and the lives of those around us. Also, blame often carries with it a whole deal of unnecessary emotion. Because we’re in a society that perhaps uses blame too much (again, politics, and other domains), it tends to make us unnecessarily defensive.

In many everyday scenarios of business and life, I prefer not to think about blame, but “cause and effect” — stripping away the emotions that are associated with blame and fault (and even credit), and instead trying to understand, often with just plain openness and curiosity, what actions and behaviours lead to what outcomes for which people.

This empowers me to try to understand personal attribution much more holistically, and to take action where I can.

In the book Good to Great, author Jim Collins articulates this very well in his concept “autopsies without blame”. Quoting from the book:

“In 1978, Philip Morris acquired the Seven-Up Company, only to sell it eight years later at a loss. The financial loss was relatively small compared to Philip Morris’s total assets, but it was a highly visible black eye that consumed thousands of hours of precious management time. In our interviews with the Philip Morris executives, we were struck by how they all brought up the debacle on their own and discussed it openly. Instead of hiding their big, ugly mistake, they seemed to feel an almost therapeutic need to talk about it. In his book, I’m a Lucky Guy, Joe Cullman dedicates five pages to dissecting the 7UP disaster. He doesn’t hold back the embarrassing truth about how flawed the decision was. It is a five-page clinical analysis of the mistake, its implications, and its lessons.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of people hours had been spent in autopsies of the 7UP case. Yet, as much as they talked about this conspicuous failure, no one pointed fingers to single out blame. There is only one exception to this pattern: Joe Cullman, standing in front of the mirror, pointing the finger right at himself. “[It] . . . became apparent that this was another Joe Cullman plan that didn’t work,” he writes. He goes even further, implying that if he’d only listened better to the people who challenged his idea at the time, the disaster might have been averted. He goes out of his way to give credit to those who were right in retrospect, naming those specific individuals who were more prescient than himself. In an era when leaders go to great lengths to preserve the image of their own track record-stepping forth to claim credit about how they were visionary when their colleagues were not, but finding others to blame when their decisions go awry-it is quite refreshing to come across Cullman. He set the tone: “I will take responsibility for this bad decision. But we will all take responsibility for extracting the maximum learning from the tuition we’ve paid.”

When you conduct autopsies without blame, you go a long way toward creating a climate where the truth is heard. If you have the right people on the bus, you should almost never need to assign blame, but only need to search for understanding and learning.

Taking responsibility is often the solution to many of our problems around blame. When we take responsibility, we are saying, in effect;

“I don’t really care whose ‘fault’ this problem is, I can and will take action on it.”

Taking action in our lives; short term losses for long term gains

Recently I called a friend of mine to ask for advice. He’s had five children and it’s my perception that him and his wife are excellent parents.

I was asking him about how to get our 10 month old to sleep better. The first thing he said was (paraphrasing) “we’ve had five children, and one way we got them to sleep is to make sure they sleep on their own bed from very early”.

This is an interesting paradox for parents because, on the surface, it seems that if you let your children sleep with you, in the same bed, that you avoid discomfort and they sleep better. But the truth is the opposite; by sleeping together with them you make them dependent on you and they fail to learn independence. I have Chinese friends who still sleep with their 4-5 year old children, and can’t seem to shake the habit. For them I say “我们所受的大部分苦,其实都是自作自受” (“much of the suffering we endure in life is self-inflicted”) 🙂

Much of the bitterness we eat in life, we feed ourselves — by failing to take action, and even failing to make difficult choices that, if made, could make life better for ourselves and those around us. That’s not to say we are “at fault”, again, blame and the associated emotions are pushed aside for this argument, that is to say we could treat ourselves better, perhaps you could say we deserve to treat ourselves better.

Think of education; think of finance and investment; think of regular exercise, or going to sleep earlier; think of proper medical treatment, psychotherapy to process and heal from difficult events. There are so many examples in life where we could trade a little bit of discomfort in the present for a lot of ease and comfort in the future, eating in the winter the food we planted in the spring and reaped in the summer.

Often, we could work harder and smarter to have an easy life.

… But working hard is hard, and working smart is hard,

and so we opt to instead have a hard life.

Shawn 02-10-2016

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