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Assigning Blame for Our Economic Pain

Exploring the psychological reasons we scapegoat certain groups for the economic downturn.

By Tom Jacobs


A sign is seen in front of a foreclosed home in Rio Vista, California. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

When something as big and scary as the 2008 global economic crisis occurs, those individuals affected — which basically means all of us — tend to look for someone, or something, to blame. In the United States, animus has mainly fallen on Mexican immigrants (among right-wingers) and big-time bankers (among leftists).

A more nuanced assessment would be that the worldwide financial system was built on shaky foundations, failing to account for the psychological forces that drove everyone from Wall Street traders to first-time homebuyers to assume the good times would never end. But that explanation doesn’t satisfy many people. We prefer to point the finger at some specific group.

Why do we do this? Spanish and Polish researchers have come up with one answer: Doing so helps us feel a sense of control.

They report that attributing blame to a specific group of people helps us restore a fictitious but reassuring sense of personal control over the turbulent economic climate. Blaming an amorphous entity like the global financial market doesn’t do the trick.

“When lacking control, searching for causes that can be ascribed to a single source or actor seems a faster and simpler strategy than searching for complex, multiple, and diverse causes,” writes a team led by psychologist Marcin Bukowski. In this case, “immigrants” or “financiers” — however numerous and diverse those groups may be — effectively serve as a “single source.”

In the journal Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, Bukowski and his colleagues describe a series of studies that provide evidence of this effect. In the first, 111 students of Spain’s University of Malaga indicated the degree to which they blamed the economic crisis on a variety of actors, including “the global economic system,” “influential groups and institutions” (such as bankers and multinational corporations), and “immigrants.”

None of us have any control over the economy. Better to face that uncomfortable truth than to scapegoat our neighbors.

They were also asked “To what extent does the crisis make you feel that you have no control over things that happen to you?” and “To what extent can you control how the economic crisis develops?”

The researchers found those who placed blame on immigrants and/or “influential groups” were more likely to say they felt largely in control of their economic destiny.

In another study, 83 University of Granada students read a fictional news story, in which prominent experts predicted the economic collapse would continue, and individual citizens had “no real means to control” its effects. Participants then wrote down two such “negative, uncontrollable effects” of the recession on their own lives.

Afterwards, one-third were asked to respond to statements blaming bankers for the crisis. Another third considered the culpability of an often-denigrated minority group (Gypsies), while the final third were asked the extent to which they blamed the global economic system.

The results: Those who pondered the roles of either bankers or Gypsies “felt less affected” by the downturn, and “felt more personal control” over their economic fate, as opposed to those who considered the role of the economic system as a whole. This suggests pointing to “abstract systemic causes” does not produce the same soothing psychological effect as blaming a specific group of people.

Why is this so? As noted earlier, one reason is our aforementioned propensity to search for simple answers. “The irresistible lure of lay theories that provide causal explanation of who is to blame for the current economic situation seems to reside in the indirect promise of a relatively easy solution to some complex problems,” the researchers write.

They add that viewing an outside group as the culprit tends to enhance feelings of solidarity within one’s own group. The notion that our community (identified by nationality, ethnicity, or what-have-you) is big and powerful enough to change things for the better “can successfully restore a threatened sense of personal control,” they write.

Needless to say, this illusory sense comes at a high price: A society in which one group of residents is blaming another for their financial troubles is hardly harmonious. The truth is that none of us have any control over the economy. Better to face that uncomfortable truth than to scapegoat our neighbors.