Human beings love to give explanations for things. If you have ever spent any time with a five-year-old, you know that a child that age just loves to ask, “Why?” This desire to understand why things happen continues throughout our lives. Understanding why things happen affects many aspects of our lives, including our ability to assign blame for an action.
The way we go about assigning blame often involves our ability to come up with counterfactual statements. A counterfactual is a statement that starts, “If only…” where the “If” part of the statement talks about something that didn’t really happen.
Suppose, for example, two children are playing catch with a football in the living room of a house. One of them throws the ball too hard, and it hits an expensive vase. We might blame the child who threw the ball by staying, “If only he hadn’t thrown the ball too hard, the vase would not have broken.” Or, we might blame both children by saying, “If only they had played catch outside, the vase would not have broken.”
There are many factors that people take into account when they create these kinds of counterfactuals when trying to figure out who to blame. Quite a bit of research by Jonathan Baron and his colleagues, for example, demonstrates that we often focus on actions people take rather than inactions when assigning blame. So, if a man pushes someone over and she gets hurt, we blame the man for hurting the woman. We reason that if he had not pushed her, she would not have gotten hurt. But, suppose the man watches a woman about to walk into a bench that she does not see. He does not tell her about the bench, and she trips over it, falls, and gets hurt. The man might have prevented the accident by speaking out, but we don’t think he is (as much) to blame. In part, his inaction is not seen as much of a cause of the woman getting hurt, because even if he had spoken up, it is possible she still would have fallen.
An interesting paper by Elizabeth Gilbert, Elizabeth Tenney, Christopher Holland, and Barbara Spellman in the May, 2015 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explores another aspect of blame: the knowledge of the individual performing the action.
The idea behind these studies is that we often blame people more for actions when they have knowledge that they could have acted on. So, if the children playing catch in the living room are 2-years-old, we might blame them less for the broken vase than if they are 10-years-old, because the 2-year-olds might know that throwing objects around the room can lead things to be broken, while the 10-year-olds know that and so they could have (and should have) acted differently.
In one study, participants read a scenario in which Sarah borrows a car from Josh. It turns out that the car has brake problems. Sarah drives a little recklessly and gets in an accident that hurts another person. In this situation, people think Sarah and the brakes of the car are the cause of the accident. However, if Josh knew that the brakes had a problem and did not tell Sarah, then people now think that Josh is actually more to blame for the accident than Sarah. If he had told her, then she might have driven differently. In a third condition, Josh knew that the brakes had a problem and did tell Sarah, but she drove recklessly anyhow. Now, Sarah is once again seen as more blameworthy than Josh for the accident, because she had enough knowledge to act more responsibly.
Another study in this series looked at the counterfactuals people create. The scenario in this study involved a woman who is cutting the grass at her house with a lawnmower that is defective. The lawnmower spins out of control and cuts her prize tulips. In one condition, the woman does not know the lawnmower is defective. In the other, her mechanic has told her the mower is defective.
Participants were asked to generate several “If only” statements and to rate whether this counterfactual statement could have occurred and whether the woman could have controlled whether that happened. They also rated the woman’s blame for destroying the tulips.
Participants thought the woman was more to blame when she knew the lawnmower was defective than when she did not know. The reason for this difference was that when the woman knew the lawnmower was defective, people were more likely to think that she could have done something (like buy a new lawnmower) that would have fixed the problem and spared the tulips. So, there was a direct link between the counterfactuals people created and the blame they assigned the woman.
Ultimately, when we are trying to understand the causes of events in our world, we reason about the way the world could have been had people taken different actions. When we think that people could have easily taken an action that would have led to a different outcome, we blame them for that outcome. And, knowledge is one key factor that makes us believe that a person could have acted differently.