With blame comes hope

After the smoke clears, we begin to apportion blame.  We have a natural tendency to try to shift the blame onto others, avoiding guilt and responsibility for errors.  But there are some obvious problems with this strategy.

Errors are valuable training instances, and our bias against accepting blame reduces the number available.  If we could externally shift blame while internally maintaining a rational apportionment, we would not be reducing our training data, but people don’t work like that.  To be believable, our efforts to shift blame must be sincere, and so our brain engages in self-deception rather than partitioning.  The result will then be to tend to underestimate the dangers of our action (and inaction) and underestimate the degree to which we can prevent bad outcomes by acting differently.

It is this latter point which gives the connection between blame and hope.  For to avoid blame is to avoid responsibility, and to avoid responsibility is to disempower oneself.  To say "I was not to blame for what happened" is to say "I could not have prevented it", which is to say "In future situations like that, I will be helpless".

So let us instead be honest about how we could have acted differently, even when things turn out craptacularly.  We can trick our minds into doing this by focusing on the positive, forward-looking nature of responsibility: thinking about how we might do better in the future, rather than the negative-sum fight to divide the anti-spoils of the past.  And reminding ourselves that some bitter blame is a small price to pay to hold onto hope.

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  • http://www.bizop.ca/blog2/due-diligence/how_we_justify_foolish_acts_an.html THE BIZOP NEWS

    How We Justify Foolish Acts and Bad Decisions

    Patri Friedman, at overcomingbias, makes a nice point “Errors are valuable training instances, and our bias against accepting blame reduces the number available”. And on…

  • Stuart Armstrong

    There’s a symmetry there: if others weren’t so eager to shift blame to us at the slightest opportunity, we wouldn’t be so rapid to try and defend ourselves instinctively.

    But in social and business interactions, when blame is a weapon, who would want to disarm unilaterally?

  • http://dl4.jottit.com/contact Richard Hollerith

    The best way to disarm unilaterally IMHO is to exercise care in your choice of career.

    For example, the “adversarial” legal system of the English-speaking countries rewards people who use self-deception to deflect blame from themselves and their clients, so a person with a habit of looking internally rather than externally for the cause of their behavior and their experiences might want to avoid law school. If they go to law school, they should plan to write books or teach rather than represent clients. The occupations of professional columnist in the main-stream media, professional popular blogger, elected official and electioneer seem to me almost uniformly hostile to this habit. In contrast, the trades (carpentry, plumbing, etc), engineering, information technology and the natural sciences are known by me to be conducive for the most part. I recall reading an autobiography (Ulam’s?) in which the person’s businessman father encouraged the person to pursue a career in the sciences to avoid the “compromises” required by a career in business. (I am not surprized to learn from his web site that Patri has degrees in math and computer science.) I am beginning to think that most jobs in non-profit organizations are fairly hostile to leading a life of low self-deception because prospering in those jobs usually entails maintaining an impression of being altruistic or dedicated to a social mission while diverting the organization’s resources to the organization’s employees and their friends. In other words, the “informal economy” based on reciprocal altruism rather than monetary transactions plays a very large role in the lives of most employees of non-profits.

    My parents drilled into me from a very early age this habit of looking internally rather than externally for the cause of my behavior and my experiences. As far as I can tell, the effects have been positive and very significant. Although it is possible to take this habit too far, I recommend it for almost everybody who is not suffering from pathological perfectionism or pathological guilt.

    Finally, here are some quotes from John David Garcia that say something similar to what Patri just said in a way I find very inspiring.

  • Pseudonymous

    So let us instead be honest about how we could have acted differently, even when things turn out craptacularly.

    Not advise that everyone would be wise to follow in this age of lawsuits.

    Or for anyone who works within a bureaucracy.

    How do you reward people for this behaviour?

  • Pseudonymous

    So let us instead be honest about how we could have acted differently, even when things turn out craptacularly.

    Not advise that everyone would be wise to follow in this age of lawsuits.

    Or for anyone who works within a bureaucracy.

    How do you reward people for this behaviour?

  • http://ben.casnocha.com/2008/02/with-blame-come.html Ben Casnocha: The Blog

    With Blame Comes Hope

    Patri Friedman reminds us why it’s important to own up to our failures or missteps, and makes the interesting connection between accepting blame and holding hope: After the smoke clears, we begin to apportion blame. We have a natural tendency

  • http://edward.oconnor.cx/ Edward O’Connor

    I’m reminded of a scene in Pride and Prejudice:

    It was not till the afternoon, when he had joined them at tea, that Elizabeth ventured to introduce the subject; and then, on her briefly expressing her sorrow for what he must have endured, he replied, “Say nothing of that. Who should suffer but myself? It has been my own doing, and I ought to feel it.”

    “You must not be too severe upon yourself,” replied Elizabeth.

    “You may well warn me against such an evil. Human nature is so prone to fall into it! No, Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough.”

  • tcpkac

    Patri’s point links well with Dennett’s ‘variety of free will worth wanting’ : under his determinism, consideration of moral responsibility for what is past is meaningless.
    Learning to do better in the future is, on the other hand, our freedom.

  • http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/futarchy_discuss Tom Breton

    To say “I was not to blame for what happened” is to say “I could not have prevented it”, which is to say “In future situations like that, I will be helpless”.

    That doesn’t really follow. “I could not have prevented it” is ambiguous between two readings, “could have … with foreknowledge” and “could have … without foreknowledge”. For instance, you may not have known that that patch of road was notoriously icy and slippery, but you’ll sure know it next time. So there’s an undistributed middle term in the implied syllogism.

  • http://rhhardin.blogspot.com Ron Hardin

    The Seven Stages of a Project, which I remember going around in the 70s, is still on the web

    Phase 1: Uncritical Acceptance
    Phase 2: Wild enthusiasm
    Phase 3: Dejected disillusionment
    Phase 4: Total confusion
    Phase 5: Search for the guilty
    Phase 6: Punishment of the innocent
    Phase 7: Promotion of nonparticipants

  • Laura

    And yet people with internal attributional styles (ie, take blame for all of thier decisions) tend to be the most depressed… I would suggest that people critically examine how things in thier life occurred so they can make wiser decisions in the future, but not assume that they could have known to act differently before-hand. The word blame implies a moral failing or weakness of judgement that did not necessarily exist.

  • http://www.cawtech.freeserve.co.uk Alan Crowe

    When I make mistakes I blame myself. It is emotionally painful. A behaviourist would call it negative re-inforcement and wonder what behaviour becomes less frequent due to this negative re-inforcement.

    Do I make mistakes less often? It doesn’t seem to work like that. The behaviour that declines is that of recognising my mistakes. Not recognising my mistakes has the same drawbacks as recognising them but then blaming others.

    Naturally mistakes should be collected and filed away as negative training instances. I do reasonably well when playing serious games of Go, intending to learn to play better. Over and above that one needs to be aware of the dynamics that ones emotional responses are creating. Both collection and filing are at risk.