Blaming Others Is Contagious Behavior

The tendency to fault others for our own failures can spread like a virus.
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We're all worried about contagion these days, so it's worth noting that researchers have found yet another unfortunate condition is highly communicable:

Blame.

Observing someone blame another for their lack of success "increased the likelihood that people would make subsequent blame attributions for their own, unrelated failures," according to a paper just published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Deflecting responsibility, in other words, is infectious — but there appears to be an effective inoculation.

"When people blame others for their mistakes, they learn less and perform worse," note the paper's co-authors, Nathanael Fast of the University of Southern California and Larissa Tiedens of Stanford University. "The problem is magnified when blame becomes embedded in the shared culture of groups and organizations. Yet little is known about whether — and if so, how — the propensity to blame spreads from one person to another."

To examine this question, Fast and Tiedens conducted four experiments. In the first, 100 participants recruited through a national online database read a news story about a 2005 special election called by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The governor called the expensive election specifically to pass four propositions, all of which were soundly defeated.

In the first version of the story, Schwarzenegger was quoted as saying responsibility for this debacle rested solely with him. In the second version, he blamed political partisanship and "certain interest groups" for the propositions' failure to pass.

After completing a filler task in which they rated their familiarity with certain baseball players, the participants were asked — ostensibly as part of a separate study — to think of a personal failure and write about it. They were then asked to indicate who or what was responsible for the disappointing outcome.

Those who read the version of the news item in which Schwarzenegger blamed opponents for his defeat "were more likely to make blame attributions for their own, unrelated failures," the researchers found. The same dynamic held in two subsequent experiments, in which participants were told of a student blaming others for his lack of success finding a job, and an administrator blaming others for the fact the foundation he runs awarded grants to several unsuitable organizations.

For the final experiment, which also featured the tale of the inappropriate grants, "we manipulated whether or not participants had an alternative means of protecting their self-image," the researchers report. Specifically, half of the test subjects were asked to write about one of their core values and why it was important to them. The others were asked to select a value they considered less important to them personally and write about why it might be meaningful to someone else.

Among those who described their core value, "the blame contagion effect was eliminated," Fast and Tiedens report. Given the opportunity to bolster their self-worth, the participants did not feel the need to shore up their egos by blaming others.

The researchers note these findings have interesting implications for the science of leadership. "Although the answer is not necessarily to stop giving critiques or assigning blame," they write, "one strategy leaders might adopt is to become more (sensitive to the issue of) what they say publicly and what they say privately."

Taking responsibility for mistakes sets a tone of accountability; publicly blaming others can start a cascade of castigation. Changing one's leadership style to reflect this reality is certainly worth a try. But if it proves disastrous, don't blame me.

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