Blame Game: Why We Hate to Feel Guilty

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When things go south and we’re to blame, we’re supposed to feel guilty. Right? Not necessarily.

It turns out that when we do something that causes negative consequences, we actually feel less responsible for our actions. Not only that, but we see the entire interaction differently than we would if our actions had yielded a more positive result.

Contrary as it might seem, the “blame game” is not a new phenomenon. Behavior experts have long known that people shift responsibility to others, or to outside conditions when things don’t work out (politics, anyone?). But new research from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, published in the journal Current Biology, shows that this response is more than about wanting to escape blame — we simply don’t think the result is our fault.

To explore the phenomenon known as “sense of agency”–the feeling that our actions produce an external event — the researchers asked 34 participants to press keys that randomly generated positive (amusement, laughter), negative (fear, disgust or anger) or neutral noises.

The volunteers were then asked to estimate the time that it took between when they pushed the button and when they heard the sound. They consistently felt there was a longer lag time between their actions and the negative sound than between their actions and the positive ones, meaning they experienced a lower sense of agency when the consequences were not so pleasant. In their minds, the negative outcomes were divorced from their involvement, and therefore they were able to feel less responsible for them.

The researchers believe this shows that actions are subject to affective modulation, and that this emotional modulation may lead to changes in social behavior.

“The most important implication is that just because you don’t feel responsible, doesn’t mean you’re actually not,” says study author Patrick Haggard in the department of psychology. The findings suggest that perhaps more of us need to recognize that unpleasant or negative situations may actually be our fault–even if we don’t see it that way. And taking more responsibility for our actions, no matter the outcome, could lead to more constructive social relationships.