“If you have time to whine and complain,” Anthony J. D’Angelo wisely advised, “then you have time to do something about it.” And yet, the amount of people content to whine without action seems to grow each day.
Nowhere is this more prevalent – and more destructive – than in our tendency to blame others when something goes wrong.
We all have this tendency. None of us are exempt from looking around and finding the nearest scapegoat from time to time.
It’s common because it’s easy. It preserves our ego. No one likes being wrong. And no one likes making mistakes. Blaming others lets us avoid that reality.
And it’s destructive because it keeps us from growing. Life is full of mistakes. None of us are strangers to setbacks. But it’s only through getting things wrong that we learn how to get them right.
Blaming others robs us of this opportunity. It insulates us from reality and perpetuates an inaccurate mental model. Which is why if you consider all of the habits that limit our long-term success, from my perspective, blaming others is one of the worst.
The good news is that this is fully solvable. We just need to recognize that our minds are programmed to do it.
Fundamental Attribution Error
If you were walking to an appointment and saw someone slumped over in need of help, would you stop and help them?
Probably, right? You’re a good person. You’d likely do the right thing.
What about someone who doesn’t stop to help? What if they just stepped over the victim and kept going? What does that say about them? Too self-absorbed? Uncaring? Just a terrible person?
In a 1973 experiment, Professors John Darley and Daniel Batson tested this very question. They told a group of theology students to give a talk in a nearby building. Half were told to prepare a talk on the Good Samaritan parable while the other half were to talk about Seminary jobs. One group was then told that they were late and needed to hurry while another was told they had time to spare.
Then, on their way to their talk, each student passed an alleyway with a man slumped over, in need of help. So how many theology students(!) stopped to help?
Well, the results weren’t encouraging, with only 40% stopping. But by far, the biggest differentiator was whether people were in a hurry. Of the group that had plenty of time, 63% stopped to offer aid. Whereas in the group that was late, only 10% did.
Whether someone was going to talk about the Good Samaritan parable didn’t bring out this positive behavior – some even stepped over the victim on their way. It also didn’t make a difference whether the students were pursuing theology for personal salvation or due to a desire to help others.
In these situations, we tend to attribute someone’s behavior to their internal characteristics – integrity, character, etc. If someone behaves well, they have a strong character. If not, clearly they’re lacking in that area.
But we neglect to recognize the situational factor, which often has a far greater impact on how people respond to given situations.
Lee Ross termed this behavior as fundamental attribution error, describing how we tend to attribute peoples’ actions to their internal motivations, rather than consider the situational pressures that may drive them to behave that way.
All of which biases us towards looking at others and seeing negative motivations. Interestingly enough, when we consider our own failures, we take the opposite approach.
The result is that we judge other people on their actions while judging ourselves by our intentions. Helping us filter our thoughts so that we’re more likely to be right, and everyone else more likely to be wrong.
If we don’t stop to help someone in need, it’s understandable because we’re late, can’t afford to stop just now, and we’re sure someone else will stop in a minute. But if someone else doesn’t, well clearly they’re just a terrible person with no conscience whatsoever.
When we see other peoples’ actions as more negatively than our own, it’s not surprising that we tend to blame others. It simply becomes a natural extension of how we take in this information.
Except that doesn’t reflect reality. And it doesn’t lead to growth.
Seek to Understand
“Have compassion for everyone you meet,” sang Lucinda Williams, because “you do not know what wars are going on down there, where the spirit meets the bone.” This awareness – that we don’t fully understand others’ motivations and intentions, and we consequently shouldn’t judge them for it – is the first step in fighting this bias.
We like a good story. And we like to have narratives that explain why things happened.
But we need to resist grabbing just any reason and focus on the real one.
The alternative to simply accepting this information is to prioritize understanding. When we make it a priority to understand the reasons behind others’ actions, it helps us consider their perspectives and challenge our own superficial assumptions.
If we choose to be curious, if we choose to keep asking why, we’re better able to understand the underlying cause of a situation. Our minds may bias us towards blaming others, but we can all choose to keep questioning what we actually want to believe.
Which puts us back in control. And let’s us focus our energy towards something that will actually be helpful. As Dr. Wayne Dyer put it,
“All blame is a waste of time. No matter how much fault you find with another, and regardless of how much you blame him, it will not change you.”
Focus on What You Can Control
“We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.” – George Bernard Shaw
It’s worth noting that in many instances, other people do deserve some of the blame. If none of us are perfect, then no one else is either.
Most of the issues we deal with each day are complex. They all have many different inputs that affect the outcome, many of which are indeed outside our locus of control.
So in many cases, blaming others is not only accurate, but fully justified.
Yet just as there’s many events outside our control, many firmly lie within our grasp as well. Refusing to recognize our own role in things gives up our agency. And simply sets us up to repeat the same struggles next time.
So we all need to choose. Do we spend our limited time, energy, and focus blaming others? Or do we use it to figure out how we can improve ourselves?
Only one of these options is actionable. And only one of them leads to a better outcome going forward.
The key isn’t in unnecessarily taking blame or shielding everyone else from accountability. But in taking a moment and asking what we could do differently to improve things.
How have I enabled this situation? How did my actions contribute to this outcome? And what can I learn and do better next time?
By taking responsibility, every problem becomes actionable.
Make the Hard Choices
“Nothing is achieved because of easy choices,” said poet and weightlifting champion Jerzy Gregorek. And there are few easier choices than choosing to blame others for our struggles.
It’s easy to blame other people. It lets us avoid responsibility. And our minds are already predisposed to do it.
But if we only focus on changing others, we’ll still be left with the same problems.
Taking responsibility is a hard choice. It puts us on the hook. It forces us to take responsibility. And it makes us remember that because every problem can be actionable – there’s no excuse for not taking action.
Taking responsibility and refusing to blame others may be a hard choice. But as Jerzy put it, “Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.”