Let’s look under the hood at blame as a psychological phenomenon and learn how to blame less.
Blame is an evaluation of behavior as morally or socially wrong (Alicke, 2000). When psychologists conceptualize blame, they usually see it as having a few key components:
behavior that is being scrutinized
an evaluation of whether the behavior caused negative outcome
an evaluation of whether the entity that behaved that way meant to do so (Alicke, 2000; Malle et al., 2012).
In other words, when we assign blame to a person, we ask ourselves what is right and wrong, and whether that person knew what they were doing is wrong (Malle et al., 2012). Blaming somebody requires us to consider our morals, imagine theirs, and make a decision about how that person was thinking.
For example, suppose that while a husband and wife are having dinner and drinks at a bar, another man makes an insulting comment to the wife. The husband stands up and shoves the other man, causing him to fall and get injured. Is the husband to blame for his actions? Your answer might depend on your own moral code (Is violence ever justified? Is chivalry important to you?) and your interpretation of the husband (Should he know better than to be drinking? Did he intend to hurt the other man?). Maybe the answer seems obvious to you, but perhaps not. And yet we often make split-second judgments (psychologists would call them attributions) of blame.
Shifting The Blame
Blame shifting is saying the fault for a mistake or negative outcome lies with somebody other than the person who is actually in the wrong. This is seen often in couples therapy, when one partner will insist that their behavior is justified because it comes in reaction to something the other partner did. For example, one partner might seek to excuse their sharing of an important secret with a close friend by pointing out that the other partner refuses to have hard conversations or try to resolve conflicts.
Blame shifting is also well-documented in the context of professional organizations. For example, companies responsible for major environmental disasters will try to shift the blame for what happened to the other companies who supplied their machinery or trained some of their workers (Park et al., 2018).
Psychology research tells us that it is very tempting, when in a position of power, to delegate responsibility so that blame can be placed on others if something goes wrong (Bartling & Fischbacher, 2012). In fact, it seems that this is often a conscious choice on the part of people in power, such as politicians; they give away some of their power so that they can diffuse or shift the blame to their subordinates when things go wrong (Schwarz, 2022).
How to Stop Blaming Others
How can you blame other people less? Well, blame is all in our heads, remember? So the solution will involve some intentional effort to change how we think and feel.
If you find yourself frequently blaming the people around you for what is happening in their lives, building your mindfulness capacity might help (Morris et al., 2022). For example, the act of blaming somebody is often accompanied by feelings of anger. You might ask yourself where the anger is coming from, whether it is justified, and whether the other person really meant for the negative outcome to happen.
Then, it can be helpful to replace the blaming thought with a positive attribution (Kimmes & Durtschi, 2016). For example, if your partner arrives late to your dinner date, it might be more effective to focus on how dedicated they are to their work than blame their lack of care for you.
How to Stop Blaming Yourself
Research clearly shows that high levels of self-blame are related to poorer psychological outcomes, such as experiencing depression (Zahn et al., 2015). People who experience lots of self-blame are also likely to feel high levels of shame, which can lead them to self-isolate (Lutwak et al., 2003).
What do we do with this toxic mix of self-blame, shame, and sadness? Practicing mindful self-compassion, where one looks at one’s thoughts, feelings, and mistakes with kindness and forgiveness can help (Tesh et al., 2015). Similarly, through deliberate reconsideration of one’s own thoughts, perhaps with the support and guidance of a therapist, one can reappraise situations and find less self-blaming ways to interpret them (Hauber et al., 2019).
Have you gotten the sense by now that blaming might not be healthy? It seems to be related to negative feelings, poorer psychological health, and bad leadership. Why is that? When we blame others, we are placing accountability somewhere else. We have given up the position of having anything to do with the solution: “This is your problem – you fix it.” While that might be convenient in one sense – we don’t have to feel bad about ourselves – it leaves us helpless in the situation.
Blaming ourselves, by contrast, opens up the possibility of examining our own responsibility for a situation. When we blame ourselves too much, we can get mired in shame and sadness. But an honest assessment of where we are to blame, along with the courage to change something and try to do better next time, can make blame helpful.
Alicke, M. D. (2000). Culpable control and the psychology of blame. Psychological Bulletin, 126(4), 556.
Bartling, B., & Fischbacher, U. (2012). Shifting the blame: On delegation and responsibility. The Review of Economic Studies, 79(1), 67-87.
Hauber, K., Boon, A., & Vermeiren, R. (2019). Non-suicidal self-injury in clinical practice. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 502.
Kimmes, J. G., & Durtschi, J. A. (2016). Forgiveness in romantic relationships: The roles of attachment, empathy, and attributions. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 42(4), 645-658.
Lutwak, N., Panish, J., & Ferrari, J. (2003). Shame and guilt: Characterological vs. behavioral self-blame and their relationship to fear of intimacy. Personality and Individual Differences, 35(4), 909-916.
Malle, B. F., Guglielmo, S., & Monroe, A. E. (2012). Moral, cognitive, and social: The nature of blame. Social Thinking and Interpersonal Behaviour, 313-331.
Morris, K. L., Kimmes, J. G., & Marroquin, C. G. (2022). Changing the blame game: Associations between relationship mindfulness, loneliness, negative partner attributions, and subsequent conflict. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 02654075221128502.
Park, B. S., Park, H., & Ramanujam, R. (2018). Tua culpa: When an organization blames its partner for failure in a shared task. Academy of Management Review, 43(4), 792-811.
Schwarz, M. E. (2022). A master of two servants: lessons from the israeli experience about the effect of separation of powers on public accountability and social welfare. Constitutional Political Economy, 1-29.
Tesh, M., Learman, J., & Pulliam, R. M. (2015). Mindful self-compassion strategies for survivors of intimate partner abuse. Mindfulness, 6(2), 192-201.
Zahn, R., Lythe, K. E., Gethin, J. A., Green, S., Deakin, J. F. W., Young, A. H., & Moll, J. (2015). The role of self-blame and worthlessness in the psychopathology of major depressive disorder. Journal of Affective Disorders, 186, 337-341.