The Blame Game

Are you prone to playing the “blame game” when something goes wrong in your life? Do you have friends or relatives who do it? There are lots of synonyms for “blame”—for example, “hold responsible or accountable”, “condemn,” “accuse,” “find guilty,” “assign fault,” or even “point the finger.”

If you automatically blame your partner when you fall on the kitchen linoleum, you might accuse him or her of not keeping the kitchen floor clean—ignoring the fact that you were clumsy because you were hurried and careless.  If dogs raid the cat food you leave on the deck outdoors, you might blame your kids for not bringing in the food bowls at night. If a tree limb falls on your parked car, you might berate the property owners for not keeping their trees pruned—never thinking of other possible causes such as strong winds.

On the other hand, you may play the blame game with yourself, faulting yourself even when you had nothing to do with a harmful outcome. Some people find themselves at fault for every bad thing that happens. If your partner slips on the kitchen floor, you might blame yourself for not mopping it the night before. When dogs sneak off with the cat food on the deck, you might blame yourself for not reminding the kids of their nightly chores. When a tree limb dents the hood of your car, you might blame yourself for lacking the ability to foresee the event. In short, you use your own personal failures as a vehicle for seeing yourself as foolish, clumsy or irresponsible. People with this inclination also have a tendency to feel that good fortune or chance is responsible for any successes in their lives, not themselves.

In either case, the focus is on past events and the unfavorable outcome is not dealt with constructively—that is, as a learning experience.  “I’m sorry you slipped on the floor. Don’t you think it’s time we hired a housekeeper to help us keep up with the household chores?” “Kids, I’ll take the catfood in the house at night from now on, but I’m going to dock your allowance by a dollar a week.”

Some religious people blame God for their misfortunes. Perhaps they entertain thoughts of a malignant Higher Power, punishing them for past “sins” that justify retribution. Or they may simply believe that their Higher Power is doing them a favor by pointing out their weaknesses.

Psychologists have various theories on the subject of blame that have to do with the intention of people’s acts. If an immoral act hurts no one, the subject of blame is usually sidestepped. If the act was intended to harm and did so, the story is quite different. For example, if kids throw rocks at cars from an overpass and the rocks hit no cars, the subject is dismissed from most people’s minds. If one rock hits a car’s windshield, causing a freeway fatality, the search is on for the guilty party. Moral luck is the belief that someone is to blame only when the action harms others, not when no one is hurt. Therefore, we blame the kids who caused the fatality and attribute less blame to those whose rocks missed their mark—when actually all the rock throwers are equally at fault.

Blaming is a way of devaluing others, with the result that the accusers feel superior, seeing others as less worthwhile and making themselves feel perfect. The problem with blame is that accusations target the outcomes of past events rather than the lessons they offer. If a dog escapes from the back yard repeatedly, causing complaints from neighbors of even visits from Animal Control, the blamer might accuse family members of leaving doors open, not checking for fence holes, and so on. Proactive dog owners are more likely to check the yard themselves for escape routes. If they find any, they can pay a handyman to repair gaps, fill holes in the soil under fencing, or even surround the perimeter with underground fencing.If the problem is doors left ajar, automatic door closers can be installed. This avoids family arguments about who is to blame and who should fix the problem.

The blame game only establishes historical guilt and encourages the accuser to feel above it all. It does nothing to resolve future occurrences of the same problem. Played out in personal life, it generally makes the “guilty” party feel angry and picked on, while the blamer feels smug and superior. The constructive alternative to blame is to ask how the problem can be avoided in the future.


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