Saturday, October 5, 2013

Why We Hate to Accept Blame

Why is it so hard to take responsibility for our errors? Of course, the obvious and somewhat glib answer is that our ego gets in the way. But there is more to it than that. Recent experiments show that one undiscovered basic cause involves our sense of agency, that is, our sense of being responsible for what we choose to do (1).

Only recently have scientists started to spend much effort on understanding human agency (2). I discovered this to my dismay when recently asked to write a book chapter on the subject. It is hard to write knowingly on any subject when not much is known. Of course agency and sense of agency are two different things, and here we are concerned with how people perceive how much control they have over their lives. Given the growing dependency on government in this country, a likely prediction is that more and more people will surrender to the belief that they can’t do much about their lives. Research has shown that a person’s sense of agency depends on how many options they have to choose from (3). Options shrink when government or anything else constrains your range of choices. Moreover, another study showed that people believe that they have more self-control than others (4), which might explain why so many politicians treat the public as helpless and in need for a government nanny.

Anyway, on the point of accepting blame for one’s failings or mistakes, it seems that people claim ownership of their actions more readily when the outcomes are positive. Negative outcomes from their deeds are associated with less ownership and sense of responsibility. The most recent experiments had a primary focus on our sense of time in association with voluntary actions. The experimental design was based on prior evidence that the perceived estimate of time lag between when we do something and when we think we did it is an implicit index of our sense of ownership. Investigators asked people to press a key, which was followed a quarter of a second later by negative sounds of fear or disgust, positive sounds of achievement or amusement, or neutral sounds. The subjects were then asked to estimate when they had made the action and when they heard the sound. Timing estimation errors were easily measured by computer.

Subjects sensed a longer time lag between their actions and the consequences when the outcome (the sound) was negative than when it was positive. The interpretation is that with positive outcomes, the subjects sensed a more direct connection between what they did and their action of button pressing. With negative outcomes, subjects wanted to put more distance (time in this case) between what they did and the outcome. This seems like a rather indirect way to assess sense of agency, but we must await a cleverer and more direct way to measure it.

In any case, such experiments support our intuition that ownership of what we do can be affected by whether or not things turn out well. In other words, we have a self-serving bias to take more credit for when things turn out well than when they don’t. When they turn out badly, we want to insulate ourselves from responsibility and put blame elsewhere. Of course, we probably already knew that, but now we have objective experimental ways to study and perhaps manipulate sense of agency. Parents and social pressures don’t always succeed in teaching people to accept blame when it is due. This problem is likely to continue to get worse as more and more children lack responsible parents or even a father and a stay-at-home mom in the home. Maybe there are more systematic ways to train people to recognize how the consequences of their deeds affect their sense of responsibility.

1.Yoshie, et al. (2013). Negative emotional outcomes attenuate sense of agency over voluntary actions. Current Biology.

2.  David, N. (2012)/ New frontiers in the neuroscience of the sense of agency. NCBI. Retrieved Oct. 2, 2013 from

3. Barlas, Z., and Obhi, S. S. (2013). Freedom, choice, and the sense of agency. Frontiers in Human Neurosience. August 29. Doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00514

4. Pronin, E, and Kugler, M. B. (2010). People believe they have more free will than others. PNAS. 107 (52), 22469-22474.

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