Research Article: The effect of admitting fault versus shifting blame on expectations for others to do the same

Date Published: March 7, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Elizabeth B. Lozano, Sean M. Laurent, Rick K. Wilson.


A wealth of research has investigated how and why people cast blame. However, less is known about blame-shifting (i.e., blaming someone else for one’s own failures) and how exposure to a blame-shifting agent might lead to expectations that other agents will also shift blame. The present research tested whether exposure to a blame-shifting (versus responsibility-taking) agent would lead perceivers to expect a second, unrelated target to also shift blame. Contrary to our expectations, people expected greater blame-shifting after exposure to a responsible agent, particularly when perceivers were surprised by this reaction to failure. Discussion focuses on how people habitually expect some people to shift blame for their mishaps, and how expectancy violations when people act in unexpected ways predict the extent to which perceivers expect unrelated agents to also shift blame.

Partial Text

Titus Livius (“Livy”), a Roman historian, discussed blame shifting in the distant past, suggesting that even though people disapprove of it [1], this method of avoiding others’ censure is nothing new. Today, we continue to live in a culture where people remain motivated to avoid appearing blameworthy and quickly point their fingers at anyone but themselves when something goes wrong.

Research on blame has received substantial attention, providing a wealth of insight into when, how, and why people blame (e.g., [2–9]). Yet, despite knowing a lot about how blame “works” in forming social and moral evaluations (e.g., [2, 4, 6–9]), we know almost nothing about whether observing people casting blame has consequences, suggesting that research on the topic is sorely needed. Of course, in many cases blame is warranted and is used instrumentally to highlight and socially punish actual wrongdoing [7]; in these cases, observing blame may not be particularly consequential, aside from directing people’s attention toward a person who is responsible for causing harm and explaining why harm occurred.




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