Blame yourself for success, god for failure

By » Thu, June 21 2012
2136953861 1b91ecbba2 450x450 Blame yourself for success, god for failure

“Look, either we all screwed up, or god did it. I vote B.” (img by Scott Maxwell)

Chances are, you have some pretty horrible double-standard habits of thought. When something goes wrong at work, you instinctively blame someone on your team, but when your team does something great, you want to take all the credit. Don’t worry, it’s common.

But what happens when you don’t have a team, and there’s no one around to blame? Chances are, you still blame something outside yourself, or at least try to understand the failure or problem in the context of some sentient actor outside yourself. Everyone’s got a scapegoat: god, karma, the government, the system, some group of other people, the computer (and the invisible group that programmed it), women, men, etc. We blame shit that’s beyond our control, and probably beyond anyone else’s control, in order to shift responsibility for our failures.

Hell, I do this at work. Customer has trouble with our (admittedly byzantine) computer registration system and I can’t fix it? I blame “the designers” of the software and apologize profusely, half hoping that the customer doesn’t ask why we even use the software.

But don’t take my word for it, check out this excerpt from Mark Hutson’s book The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking:

[Researchers] presented subjects who believed in a higher power with one of four stories. In all four versions, a family is picnicking in a valley when the water level rises. In half the stories, lunch is ruined by the flood, and in the other half lunch is really ruined because everyone drowns. Also, in half the stories a dam worker is said to have caused the flood, and in half of them the cause of the flood is unknown. Subjects then rated how much the story’s outcome was part of God’s plan. God drew much more blame when people died and no one was clearly responsible than in the other three scenarios. The tragedy needed an explanation, and human intervention wasn’t an option.

We might even give more credit to a higher power for bad stuff than for good stuff. Carey Morewedge of Carnegie Mellon has found a negative agency bias—a tendency to attribute negative events more than positive events to agents. In one of his studies, subjects played a game of chance where an impartial other player could secretly intervene on some rounds of the game. Subjects were most likely to suspect the other player had stepped in when they lost money, particularly when they lost big.

I’ve found that it’s really hard to break the mental blame habit. Even if we know we do it, it’s hard to control the reflex. Expensive gas? It’s the politicians’ fault. Didn’t get enough sleep last night? Blame the godless Russians and their nukes. Get mugged one night drunk off your ass waving your new iPhone around? Gotta be racial. Tripped up the stairs? Shoddy workmanship. Whatever you do, don’t put the blame on you:

(These guys blamed the pressure and the music industry for the entirety of their work being sung by someone else)

Or try something else. When something shitty happens, sit down (unless you’ve just been bitten on the ass by one of them immigrant dogs) and think through the agency. Read your Annie Dillard, look at the world a different way, and figure out if there’s a way you can take an active, personally responsible hand in the things that happen around you.

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