Blame, Responsibility and Attribution Error

by Marianne Richmond on September 15, 2005

Yesterday’s WSJ featured an article about blame that notes among other things that "Americans are beset with blame mongering". Well, all we need to do is read the news to know that finger pointing seems to be the first step we take in coming to terms with a problem.   

The WSJ, along with every other news source reported that George Bush was taking responsibility for the failures in dealing with Hurricane Katrina. Blogs weighed in with debits and credits for Bush’s announcement. Many highlighted failures on the part of Nagin and Blanco and Margaret Carlson writes in the LA Times on the whole blame mess an article entitled, "Cashing in on the Blame". In this article, as with others, Bush is blamed for taking blame. Further, this article notes that Bush must have taken a page from JFK’s book who "subverted the blame game by admitting he had blundered at the Bay of
Pigs. He proved you can diminish blame by taking responsibility." I guess this must mean that no one has taken responsibility for much since 1961.

The WSJ article notes that blame is rooted in nature and nurture.  The original finger pointers started in the Garden of Eden…so there you have nature; instructions for blaming soon followed and became nurture. So, we learned to blame so that we don’t have to accept responsibility for negative things.  But then, after we attribute blame for the negative event or outcome , we are still left with something or somebody that has to change or be rectified.  So we have more than one kind of /blame/responsibility really: I take the blame/responsibility for the situation and I take responsibility for fixing it/changing it versus I give you responsibility for this (blame) and you need to take responsibility and fix it/change it versus I take responsibility for the situation and I take responsibility for fixing it/changing it.

All of this seems to lead to attribution theory and the social psychologist Heider who drew a few boxes,
triangles and balls and then explained that external attribution occurs when we cognitively attribute causality to outside factors such as weather; internal attribution occurs when we assign causality to internal factors such as intelligence. We are more apt to excuse our own mistakes by "situations" beyond our control (external attribution) and blame mistakes on others because of their own ineptness (internal attribution). And no I am not making any inferences about a Hurricane and the intelligence of those trying to handle it. It’s just that attribution theory, especially fundamental attribution error theory explain a lot about the current state of blame in New Orleans which are pretty clearly split by party lines.  When my ex-husband had a problem with for instance his computer it was the computer’s fault; the computer was broken; when I had a problem with my computer, it was because I had done something wrong; I broke the computer.



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