My Fault?
May 2, 2020 10:45 AM   Subscribe

For years, I've lived under the belief and assumption that most of the problems in my life I caused either through actions or attitude. When I look back with the maturity of early old age, I see that's true.

It's easy to blame circumstances or other people for the things that have happened to me or for things that didn't work out or whatever. But when I apply a tool I've relied on for much of my life that I learned as a soldier in the Army, choice:decision:consequences, I see I can't find much blame for those things anywhere else. It has made me grateful for what I have and reminds me often to not judge, though I still do it sometimes.

Is there any any research anywhere that explores how people view their own lives in terms of whether they see where they are, good or bad, as being a result of them putting themselves there?Do they accept their role and do they become better people when/after that realization? I'm just curious.
posted by CollectiveMind to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
That should be "choices."
posted by CollectiveMind at 10:47 AM on May 2


Can you say more about what you mean by 'research'?

There is a great deal of work that aligns to what you're describing, going as far as to say: the things that are in our lives , whether we feel good about them or not, are there because we invited them.

Ontological coaching is a type of therapy that subscribes to this,as does maybe most therapy.

It's talked about in one way or another on Buddhism and Hinduism and a number of inner work communities.

You might like to start with someone from you career who wrote the book Discipline Equals Freedom, which has a similar view to yours.

I hope someone can recommend a book or resource that comes out of one of the other spaces I mentioned. I'm having trouble thinking of a introductory resource.

In my opinion it's an important and powerful idea.
posted by jander03 at 11:30 AM on May 2


From a scientific perspective, the psychological research on this topic is a bit confusing. Part of the issue is that Fault is kind of a combination of two things: a moral blameworthiness, and identifying choices and actions that lead to practical consequences. Here's an old but heavily-cited article explaining the difference: Characterological self-blame is blaming bad results on a constant part of your "character" and is associated strongly with depression, whereas behavioral self-blame is blaming bad results on specific decisions and actions and isn't normally a problem. Most of science agrees that blaming "inherent character" for failures makes people worse off and more likely to discriminate against others.

I do not think there is scientific consensus on whether people are better off blaming the decisions they make, or the decisions of other people, for problems. Part of this is because basically all problems are due to many people's decisions combining together in complicated ways, with a whole lot of random chance. I have seen research saying that if people blame their own decisions for problems, and they believe they could have chosen differently, they are more likely to make better decisions in the future. But, if they felt forced into those decisions by the situation or someone else they won't make a better decision next time.

So there are a lot of different perspectives, but I think my summary is that if you feel you made a choice or decision that caused a problem, and you feel like you could have done something different, it is good to accept responsibility for it because you can learn from that to make better choices next time. But if it's something you do not feel like you have control over, accepting responsibility can just lead to self-resentment and won't make you a better person in the future. Instead, it is better to focus on the parts of it you actually can change, such as your personal response or actions you can take to deal with fallout.
posted by JZig at 11:47 AM on May 2 [7 favorites]


There is a concept in psychology called Locus of Control that applies to this that you may find interesting to research.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:27 PM on May 2 [5 favorites]


And similarly, extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation.
posted by tivalasvegas at 12:29 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]


Yes, locus of control is all about this, and there's heaps of research into it. Short version: Those with an internal locus of control are generally happier and feel more in control of their lives. Those with an external locus of control tend to be less happy and feel like they're not in control of their lives. Here's the wikipedia article.

This is a concept I use all of the time when teaching people about personal finance. A lot of folks want to make excuses for their situation. This is exercising an external locus of control. My argument is: It doesn't matter how or why your financial situation is the way it is. What matters is that you fix it. Fault is irrelevant. Ultimately, your financial success is your responsibility. I am, in essence, trying to encourage an internal locus of control.

And that's sort of what I'd say to you. Your circumstances might be your fault. Or they might not be. Really, that's irrelevant. Either way, it's your responsibility to make changes -- if you want changes.
posted by jdroth at 1:15 PM on May 2 [4 favorites]


I hope this post doesn't seem too disjoint. But the OP did say "research anywhere".

The ancient Greeks were examining this question in their time. Was it Orestes' duty to revenge the murder of his father or honor his mother? Catch-22.

Modern society has similar Catch-22 situations. What are our duties and how do they rank? This gets to the concept of agency, praise and blame.

This quote

"blame” finds its way into idioms for which there is no ready parallel employing “praise”: compare “S is to blame for x” and “S is to praise for x”. Note, as well, that “holding responsible” is itself not a neutral expression: it typically arises in blaming contexts.

is from a Stanford piece on moral responsibility.

In the extreme there have been cases of homicidal maniacs who have been found to have brain tumors that, once removed, totally changed their personalities. But that doesn't help the victims or their families.

I am just trying to suggest that real life decisions are more complex or nuanced. The path to hell is paved with good intentions.

A favorite poster of mine is this one (which I believe jives with the "locus of control" mentioned above).
posted by forthright at 6:18 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]


My personal impression is that a certain degree of personal accountability seems beneficial for most people in many ways. Sure, many people may know someone who always likes to view themselves as a victim, but many people also desperately don't want to be that person. Pity is only bearable in small quantities and only temporarily for most of us. In some sense self-blame can make it easier to maintain a favourable image of yourself. It's useful in other ways too - identifying something as your own mistake may help you avoid a repetition and prevent undesired outcomes in the future. And even when you don't get a second chance, hardship can seem easier to bear when you own it as your own choice, because that might allow you to find meaning in your suffering. Self-blame is the price you pay for having a sense of control in your life and one that many people find worth paying.

Personal agency may be fact or fiction, but if it's fiction, it's a mostly useful one at least.

Until it isn't. Sometimes we're not in control/our control is very limited and the price of denial might be higher than the comfort of illusion. Over-emphasis on personal agency can make people waste too much time and energy on games that were rigged against them from the start, stay too long in bad relationships (well, he hit me, but _I_did provoke him), and turn aggression inward that might be more productively channelled into collective action to change toxic systems - it's sometimes just plain insufficient to tackle problems that can't be solved on an individual basis (eg. climate change, a pandemic).

Even that most pragmatic benefit of personal accountability - the possibility to learn from mistakes - might on occasion backfire, because it's so easy to over-generalize. Example: You place your trust in someone, who betrays you. You look for your part in the affair and find that you have trusted too quickly, gave in to wishful thinking, overlooked several warning signs. You learn to be more guarded, identify red flags faster, trust your gut more about bad vibes, make better choices about the people you associate with. So far so good. Your social life will probably improve as you focus your efforts on people more worthy of them. But there's no guarantee that you will never be betrayed again. Shit happens. People aren't perfectly predictable. Intimacy always involves taking a certain risk, and sometimes it doesn't pay off. So if you do get betrayed again, and you conclude that you need to be even more guarded, write off people even more quickly at the slightest hint of inconsistency, you'll eventually end up overdoing it and that will cost you just as dearly as never developing any sort of judgment at all. Getting betrayed doesn't always mean that trust was a mistake, and trying to eliminate all risk of it is just as foolish as not accounting for the possibility at all. Certain things in life can't be accomplished without trust - mutual trust (because people can often tell when you don't trus them, and won't trust you either) maintain your own ability to trust, it is sometimes better to blame the betrayer than yourself.
posted by sohalt at 5:07 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


That said, you asked for research, not for my personal impression (please excuse my rambling). Here's where I'm getting these ideas from:

There's lot a of literature in psychology about internal vs external locus of control and attribution theory (whether you attribute a particular outcome to something you did or external circumstances/mere luck) . I come accross it mostly in the context of pedagogy - how those attitudes positively or negatively effect learning outcomes. Probably unsurpisingly, people who can acknowledge their own mistakes are usually found to learn more from them (which is why one big goal in pedagogy is to promote self-efficacy/a belief in personal agency/ability to influence outcomes), but again, not always necessarily the right thing, which is why you might also be interested in research on cognitive biases (eg. hindisght bias, a propensity to consider outcomes as more predictable than they actually were).
posted by sohalt at 5:28 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


These are all great. I may hang this in a frame as a reminder of both sides of the argument. It's amazing to me that even though most people would call these observations of yours, "obvious", it's the obvious things people often say need to be said out loud sometimes. Thanks.
posted by CollectiveMind at 1:45 PM on May 5 [1 favorite]


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