Blame is the act of censuring, holding responsible, or making negative statements about an individual or group that their actions or inaction are socially or morally irresponsible, the opposite of praise. When someone is morally responsible for doing something wrong, their action is blameworthy. By contrast, when someone is morally responsible for doing something right, it may be said that their action is praiseworthy. There are other senses of praise and blame that are not ethically relevant. One may praise someone's good dress sense, and blame their own sense of style for their own dress sense.

Concept of Blame

Philosophers discuss the concept of blame as one of the reactive attitudes, a term coined by P. F. Strawson, which includes attitudes like blame, praise, gratitude, resentment, and forgiveness.[1] In contrast to physical or intellectual concepts, reactive attitudes are formed from the point of view of an active participant regarding objects. This is to be distinguished from the objective standpoint.


Blaming appears to relate to include brain activity in the temporoparietal junction (TPJ).[2] The amygdala has been found[3] to contribute when we blame others, but not when we respond to their positive actions.[4]

Sociology and psychology

Humans—consciously and unconsciously—constantly make judgments about other people. The psychological criteria for judging others may be partly ingrained,[citation needed] negative, and rigid, indicating some degree of grandiosity.[citation needed]

Blaming provides a way of devaluing others, with the result that the blamer feels superior, seeing others as less worthwhile and/or making the blamer "perfect". Off-loading blame means putting the other person down by emphasizing their flaws.[5]

Victims of manipulation and abuse frequently feel responsible for causing negative feelings in the manipulator/abuser towards them and the resultant anxiety in themselves. This self-blame often becomes a major feature of victim status.

The victim gets trapped into a self-image of victimization. The psychological profile of victimization includes a pervasive sense of helplessness, passivity, loss of control, pessimism, negative thinking, strong feelings of guilt, shame, remorse, self-blame, and depression. This way of thinking can lead to hopelessness and despair.[6]


Two main types of self-blame exist:

  1. behavioral self-blame – undeserved blame based on actions. Victims who experience behavioral self-blame feel that they should have done something differently, and therefore feel at fault.
  2. characterological self-blame – undeserved blame based on character. Victims who experience characterological self-blame feel there is something inherently wrong with them which has caused them to deserve to be victimized.

Behavioral self-blame is associated with feelings of guilt within the victim. While the belief that one had control during the abuse (past control) is associated with greater psychological distress, the belief that one has more control during the recovery process (present control) is associated with less distress, less withdrawal, and more cognitive reprocessing.[7]

Counseling responses found helpful in reducing self-blame include:[8]

A helpful type of therapy for self-blame is cognitive restructuring or cognitive–behavioral therapy. Cognitive reprocessing is the process of taking the facts and forming a logical conclusion from them that is less influenced by shame or guilt.[9]

Victim blaming

Main article: Victim blaming

Victim blaming is holding the victims of a crime, an accident, or any type of abusive maltreatment to be entirely or partially responsible for the incident that has occurred. The fundamental attribution error concept explains how people tend to blame negative behavior more on the victims traits than the situation at the time of the event.[10]

Individual blame versus system blame

In sociology, individual blame is the tendency of a group or society to hold the individual responsible for their situation, whereas system blame is the tendency to focus on social factors that contribute to one's fate.

Blame shifting

See also: Buck passing and Psychological projection

Blaming others can lead to a "kick the dog" effect where individuals in a hierarchy blame their immediate subordinate, and this propagates down a hierarchy until the lowest rung (the "dog"). A 2009 experimental study has shown that blaming can be contagious even for uninvolved onlookers.[11]

In complex international organizations, such as enforcers of national and supranational policies and regulations, the blame is usually attributed to the last echelon, the implementing actors.[12]

As a propaganda technique

Main article: Scapegoating

Labeling theory accounts for blame by postulating that when intentional actors act out to continuously blame an individual for nonexistent psychological traits and for nonexistent variables, those actors aim to induce irrational guilt at an unconscious level. Blame in this case becomes a propaganda tactic, using repetitive blaming behaviors, innuendos, and hyperbole in order to assign negative status to normative humans. When innocent people are blamed fraudulently for nonexistent psychological states and nonexistent behaviors, and there is no qualifying deviance for the blaming behaviors, the intention is to create a negative valuation of innocent humans to induce fear, by using fear mongering. For centuries, governments have used blaming in the form of demonization to influence public perceptions of various other governments, as well as to induce feelings of nationalism in the public. Blame can objectify people, groups, and nations, typically negatively influencing the intended subjects of propaganda, compromising their objectivity.[citation needed] Blame is utilized as a social-control technique.[citation needed]

In organizations

Main article: Blame in organizations

The flow of blame in an organization may be a primary indicator of that organization's robustness and integrity. Blame flowing downwards, from management to staff, or laterally between professionals or partner organizations, indicates organizational failure. In a blame culture, problem-solving is replaced by blame-avoidance. Blame coming from the top generates "fear, malaise, errors, accidents, and passive-aggressive responses from the bottom", with those at the bottom feeling powerless and lacking emotional safety. Employees have expressed that organizational blame culture made them fear prosecution for errors and/or accidents and thus unemployment, which may make them more reluctant to report accidents, since trust is crucial to encourage accident reporting. This makes it less likely that weak and/or long-term indicators of safety threats get picked up, thus preventing the organization from taking adequate measures to prevent minor problems from escalating into uncontrollable situations. Several issues identified in organizations with a blame culture contradict the best practices adopted by high reliability organizations.[13][14] Organisational chaos, such as confused roles and responsibilities, is strongly associated with blame culture and workplace bullying.[14][15] Blame culture promotes a risk aversive approach, which prevent organizations and their agents from adequately assessing risks.[14][15][16]

According to Mary Douglas, blame is systematically used in the micro-politics of institutions, with three latent functions: explaining disasters, justifying allegiances, and stabilizing existing institutional regimes. Within a politically stable regime, blame tends to be asserted on the weak or unlucky one, but in a less stable regime, blame shifting may involve a battle between rival factions. Douglas was interested in how blame stabilizes existing power structures within institutions or social groups. She devised a two-dimensional typology of institutions, the first attribute being named "group", which is the strength of boundaries and social cohesion, the second "grid", the degree and strength of the hierarchy. According to Douglas, blame will fall on different entities depending on the institutional type. For markets, blame is used in power struggles between potential leaders. In bureaucracies, blame tends to flow downwards and is attributed to a failure to follow rules. In a clan, blame is asserted on outsiders or involves allegations of treachery, to suppress dissidence and strengthen the group's ties. In the 4th type, isolation, the individuals are facing the competitive pressures of the marketplace alone; in other words, there is a condition of fragmentation with a loss of social cohesion, potentially leading to feelings of powerlessness and fatalism, and this type was renamed by various other authors into "donkey jobs". It is suggested that the progressive changes in managerial practices in healthcare is leading to an increase in donkey jobs.[15]

The requirement of accountability and transparency, assumed to be key for good governance, worsen the behaviors of blame avoidance, both at the individual and institutional levels,[17] as is observed in various domains such as politics[18] and healthcare.[19] Indeed, institutions tend to be risk-averse and blame-averse, and where the management of societal risks (the threats to society) and institutional risks (threats to the organizations managing the societal risks)[20] are not aligned, there may be organizational pressures to prioritize the management of institutional risks at the expense of societal risks.[21][22] Furthermore, "blame-avoidance behaviour at the expense of delivering core business is a well-documented organizational rationality".[21] The willingness of maintaining one's reputation may be a key factor explaining the relationship between accountability and blame avoidance.[23] This may produce a "risk colonization", where institutional risks are transferred to societal risks, as a strategy of risk management.[21][24][25] Some researchers argue that there is "no risk-free lunch" and "no blame-free risk", an analogy to the "no free lunch" adage.[26]

See also


  1. ^ Strawson, P. F. (1962). "Freedom and Resentment" Proceedings of the British Academy 48:187-211.
  2. ^ Hoffman, Morris B. (2014). The Punisher's Brain: The Evolution of Judge and Jury. Cambridge Studies in Economics, Choice, and Society. Cambridge University Press. p. 68. ISBN 9781107038066. Retrieved 2014-05-22. Our adult brains [...] have dedicated circuits devoted to the assessment of intentionality and harm, and to the calculation of blame based on those two assessments, using intent as the main driver and harm only as a tiebreaker. Part of those blaming circuits lie in a region called the temporoparietal junction, or TPJ. It is an area of the cortex roughly even with the top of the ears.
  3. ^ amygdala has been found
  4. ^ Ngo, Lawrence; Kelly, Meagan; Coutlee, Christopher G; Carter, R McKell; Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter; Huettel, Scott A (2015). "Two Distinct Moral Mechanisms for Ascribing and Denying Intentionality". Scientific Reports. 5: 17390. Bibcode:2015NatSR...517390N. doi:10.1038/srep17390. PMC 4669441. PMID 26634909. Based on converging behavioral and neural evidence, we demonstrate that there is no single underlying mechanism. Instead, two distinct mechanisms together generate the asymmetry. Emotion drives ascriptions of intentionality for negative consequences, while the consideration of statistical norms leads to the denial of intentionality for positive consequences.
  5. ^ Brown, N.W., Coping With Infuriating, Mean, Critical People – The Destructive Narcissistic Pattern (2006)
  6. ^ Braiker, H.B., Who's Pulling Your Strings? How to Break The Cycle of Manipulation (2006)
  7. ^ Frazier, P.A.; Mortensen, H.; Steward, J. (2005). "Coping Strategies as Mediators of the Relations Among Perceived Control and Distress in Sexual Assault Survivors". Journal of Counseling Psychology. 52 (3): 267–78. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.52.3.267.
  8. ^ Matsushita-Arao, Y. (1997). Self-blame and depression among forcible rape survivors. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering. 57(9-B). p. 5925.
  9. ^ Branscombe, N.R.; Wohl, M.J.A.; Owen, S.; Allison, J.A.; N'gbala, A. (2003). Counterfactual Thinking, Blame Assignment, and Well-Being in Rape Victims. Basic & Applied Social Psychology, 25(4), p. 265, 9p.
  10. ^ Feigenson, Neal (2000). Legal blame: How jurors think and talk about accidents. Washington: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/10358-000. ISBN 978-1-55798-677-1.
  11. ^ Jeanna Bryner: Workplace Blame Is Contagious and Detrimental, LiveScience, 2010-01-19, citing the January 2010 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
  12. ^ Rittberger, Berthold; Schwarzenbeck, Helena; Zangl, Bernhard (July 2017). "Where Does the Buck Stop? Explaining Public Responsibility Attributions in Complex International Institutions". JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies. 55 (4): 909–924. doi:10.1111/jcms.12524. hdl:10.1111/jcms.12524. S2CID 157749185.
  13. ^ McLendon, J.; Weinberg, G.M. (July 1996). "Beyond blaming: congruence in large systems development projects". IEEE Software. 13 (4): 33–42. doi:10.1109/52.526830.
  14. ^ a b c Milch, Vibeke; Laumann, Karin (February 2016). "Interorganizational complexity and organizational accident risk: A literature review". Safety Science (Review). 82: 9–17. doi:10.1016/j.ssci.2015.08.010. hdl:11250/2452901.
  15. ^ a b c Rudge, Trudy (2016). (Re)Thinking Violence in Health Care Settings: A Critical Approach. Routledge. ISBN 9781317189190.
  16. ^ Hollnagel, Erik; Braithwaite, Jeffrey (2019). Resilient Health Care. CRC Press. ISBN 9781317065166.
  17. ^ Hinterleitner, Markus; Sager, Fritz (26 May 2016). "Anticipatory and reactive forms of blame avoidance: of foxes and lions". European Political Science Review. 9 (4): 587–606. doi:10.1017/S1755773916000126.
  18. ^ Hood, Christopher (June 2007). "What happens when transparency meets blame-avoidance?". Public Management Review. 9 (2): 191–210. doi:10.1080/14719030701340275. S2CID 154987310.
  19. ^ McGivern, Gerry; Fischer, Michael (2010). "Medical regulation, spectacular transparency and the blame business". Journal of Health Organization and Management. 24 (6): 597–610. doi:10.1108/14777261011088683. PMID 21155435.
  20. ^ Rothstein, Henry (September 2006). "The institutional origins of risk: A new agenda for risk research". Health, Risk & Society (Editorial). 8 (3): 215–221. doi:10.1080/13698570600871646. S2CID 146426570. Used only for clarifying what are societal risks and institutional risks((cite journal)): CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  21. ^ a b c Rothstein, Henry; Huber, Michael; Gaskell, George (February 2006). "A theory of risk colonization: The spiralling regulatory logics of societal and institutional risk" (PDF). Economy and Society. 35 (1): 91–112. doi:10.1080/03085140500465865. S2CID 143932088.
  22. ^ Hood, Christopher; Rothstein, Henry (26 July 2016). "Risk Regulation Under Pressure" (PDF). Administration & Society. 33 (1): 21–53. doi:10.1177/00953990122019677. S2CID 154316481.
  23. ^ Busuioc, E. Madalina; Lodge, Martin (April 2016). "The Reputational Basis of Public Accountability" (PDF). Governance. 29 (2): 247–263. doi:10.1111/gove.12161. S2CID 143427109.
  24. ^ Manning, Louise; Luning, Pieternel A; Wallace, Carol A (19 September 2019). "The Evolution and Cultural Framing of Food Safety Management Systems—Where From and Where Next?". Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety (Review). 18 (6): 1770–1792. doi:10.1111/1541-4337.12484. PMID 33336962.
  25. ^ Davis, Courtney; Abraham, John (August 2011). "A comparative analysis of risk management strategies in European Union and United States pharmaceutical regulation". Health, Risk & Society (Review). 13 (5): 413–431. doi:10.1080/13698575.2011.596191. S2CID 71466498.
  26. ^ Hood, Christopher (28 March 2014). "The Risk Game and the Blame Game". Government and Opposition. 37 (1): 15–37. doi:10.1111/1477-7053.00085. S2CID 143397032.

Further reading