People are bad at placing blame

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Instead of being compassionate we’ll just carve it into public property and hope that’s good enough dave lowe unsplash

Although we may think we have the answers on how the world works, there is always more to learn

Content warning: sexual assault, blaming survivors of sexual assault

I am the type of person who always wants to understand why things happen the way they do. I never really left that childhood stage of asking “why” about everything, which has mostly been a benefit seeing as I am a student journalist and a psychology major. Sometimes this default mode works really well because it helps me pick up on patterns, and also because it keeps me curious when I’m trying to solve problems. Few things stifle creativity like frustration, but few things nurture it like curiosity, so feeling excited about searching for the next step when life goes belly up has worked in my favour.

This drive can also inhibit me, as it makes it more difficult for me to accept when there is no way I can make a situation better. Some days are not so bad, and I can mostly accept it. On others I get sent spiralling because when I cannot figure out how to fix a problem, I tend to assume the problem is me. That does not mean that I believe I caused the problem or am solely to blame for it, but I will get angry with myself because I am convinced there is a solution – some “why” I’m not seeing – and will feel inadequate when I cannot find it. I have a drive to find reasons for things, which can translate to a drive to assign blame when things go wrong, and most of that blame is directed internally.

Of course, that is not the only direction blame can be pointed – it’s very easy to assign blame to others when things do not go as planned, though it is not always wrong to place blame elsewhere when you cannot solve a problem. For example, blaming the handful of companies who cause the majority of the world’s pollution and holding them accountable for their actions would make a larger impact than you as an individual committing to taking reusable bags with you when you shop, but as an individual you only have control over one of those things so blaming yourself for the State of the World (™) is not placing blame where it really belongs.

My need to place blame somewhere comes from the idea that if I know what caused something and it’s a thing I don’t want to happen again, I now stand a chance of stopping that thing. When you’re a kid you learn that when you touch something hot, it burns you, and you gradually learn to exercise caution around these things because you do not want that to happen. It can also help when figuring out what to do more of. People generally feel gratitude and joy when you offer to share what you have with them, so you can find patterns that show you how to improve the lives of others too. 

Even though there’s often something that likely caused an event to happen that you can watch for as a red flag next time, that is not always the case. When I am genuinely not sure what happened to cause a situation, that’s when I’ll hit my fun little spiral and have the urge to toss blame one way or another.

There is a concept, though, from social psychology that does a good job of outlining why it’s so tempting to assign blame and close the case before considering what really happened. The just-world hypothesis is based around the idea that people like to think of the world they live in as somewhere that is predictable and safe, where actions always have the same consequences and people always get what they deserve. When events happen that show people the world might not be as predictable and safe as they thought, they want to find explanations so that they can avoid the unpleasant or traumatic thing that they hear, witness, or experience. 

Ever heard of a sexual assault survivor being asked what they were wearing when they were assaulted? That is a perfect example of the just-world hypothesis. People obviously want to avoid being sexually assaulted, but the way they think around it places blame on the person it happened to. They are convinced there is a reason people who sexually assault choose certain people to assault, and that by not being “one of those people,” they’ll avoid being assaulted. They essentially try to find a sole cause for the event (i.e., how the person was dressed) that they can blame for the event and avoid, because they’re terrified of the unknown level of risk, of something they may truly have no control over. 

So, is it okay for them to blame survivors of sexual assault if it’s just to make themselves feel safer? Abso-fucking-lutely not – that isn’t how the world actually works. People aren’t assaulted because of how they dress. They are assaulted because someone who felt entitled to that experience with them chose to take it from them. It’s not like assaults weren’t a problem back when people were wearing petticoats, because it’s never had anything to do with what the person who got assaulted was wearing. But believing that it did can give people some amount of perceived control, because in their minds they know what causes the things they don’t want to experience. 

To circle back, I’d simply like to leave you with a word of caution. I understand the drive to find a reason behind events, behaviours, and choices, but you have to remember to not let your auto-pilot drive to find reasons navigate your search. Sometimes that autopilot will lead you down completely incorrect routes because it saw an easy explanation, and sometimes the easy ones don’t accurately reflect what’s going on in the world. People are bad at placing blame because we don’t like the way the world works. We like predictability and consistency, not new odds every day, so we imagine how we’d like the world to work and act as though it’ll listen. 

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