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Why We Blame Others


Explanations > Behaviors > Blame > Why We Blame Others

Badness | Status | Projection | Explaining | Defending | Conditioning | See also


Why do we tend to blame other people? We do it so often and so easily, but what is the underlying psychological purpose?


One explanation we tell ourselves when we blame others is because they are bad. Yet being bad means not only intentionally transgressing values but repeatedly doing so and without concern for others. Being bad is a permanent state, an unchangeable trait. Few can be described as being so evil.

Turning the tables, blaming itself can be seen as a bad act, so perhaps you can blame the blamer, pointing out that they are blaming too quickly and insufficient evidence. There is a line from the Bible (John 8:7) that says 'Let the person who is without sin cast the first stone', implying that nobody is blameless and hence is not qualified to blame others.

So why do we still blame?


We have a deep need for a sense of identity, and one way we do this is through social comparison, contrasting ourselves against others. As a part of this, if we can place ourselves higher in the pecking order of society then we can feel more important and have a greater sense of control.

Much of our conversation with others is in fact a social duel in which we seek a higher status than others. And blame is one of the tools we use to this end. If the other person is bad, then it seems we must be relatively good.


Another reason for blame is that we feel bad about something and want to get rid of the bad feeling, so we project that feeling at others. Blaming others sets them up as bad so we can then project our bad feelings into them.

In effect, we are saying 'I cannot handle this bad feeling, so I want you to take it away for me'. Of course it is not that simple, but this method is rooted in childhood thinking yet continues well into adult life.

If we can focus on the bad of others then this takes our mind off the bad feelings within us. Projection hence has can work by distraction.


When something goes wrong, our deep need to explain what caused the problem to occur is triggered.

A way of finding cause is to blame someone. This is a surprisingly common approach in organizations where a 'blame culture' assumes someone is at fault for every problem and issue. As a result, people are quick to judge others and equally quick to avoid or deny responsibility.

What is easily missed is that most problems are caused by the context or system and not by people. Few go to work thinking 'I'll fail today'. Few also are lazy or incompetent. 


When we feel that we are under attack, we may use blaming as a method of defending ourselves.

If a person blames us, then it is suggested that (a) something has gone wrong, and (b) it was our responsibility. We can accept (a) and either deflect (b) by suggesting someone else is to blame, or directly counter-attack by blaming the blamer.

If we are not at fault, we blame to defend. If we are at fault, then we blame to deflect. In either case, we protect ourselves by pointing the finger elsewhere.


Sometimes we blame others less because we are moving attention away from ourselves and more because we specifically want to attack others.

A common reason to attack others is that we have some grudge against them, believing them to be bad or unworthy in some way and hence deserving punishment. Perhaps they have blamed us unfairly in past. Maybe they have hurt one of our friends. In any case, the opportunity to blame is used as a convenient method of subtle attack.


In conditioning, a stimulus is paired with an action in order to motivate. Much of the way we try to motivate others is based on such assumptions.

Blame is a form of punishment and is likely to result in reduction in the actions that the person is taking. It is a poor motivator to get people to act in specific other ways.

One of the major social benefits of blame is that it conditions people into behaving according to the rules of the society. Just the fear of being blamed, and the consequences of this, is often enough to gain compliance. In this way, blaming is also a way of sending signals to others.

While blame can work, it is fraught with difficulties as people are not as simple as animals, with which the original research was done. When people are blamed, they may resist, fighting back with their own attack. They may also seem to do nothing yet hold a grudge that comes out in a long series of unhelpful acts.

There can also be an unwanted conditioning effect where the underlying assumption that the blamed person is bad leads to them believing this, resulting in them continuing to act in a bad way.

See also

Attribution Theory, Status, Conditioning, Coping Mechanisms


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