Bryan Caplan  

Blame Others, Hurt Yourself

What Does a Szaszian Therapist... Me on ABC-TV...

A while back, I discussed some evidence that blaming people for your problems makes you feel worse about them:

If and who you blame for bad events matters too. In one study, "[V]ictims of severe accidents who blamed themselves for the accident were coping more successfully eight to twelve months afterward than those who did not, and... victims who blamed other people (as opposed to some nonspecific external cause) displayed especially low coping scores." This rings so true to me that my head is still spinning. Have I ever felt unhappy for long about something without blaming another person? I'm drawing a blank.
A recent paper on "Why Are Conservatives Happier Than Liberals?" suggests that my intuition generalizes rather well:
However, our research suggests that inequality takes a greater psychological toll on liberals than on conservatives, apparently because liberals lack ideological rationalizations that would help them frame inequality in a positive (or at least neutral) light. This could explain, in part, why conservative governments tend to increase inequality more than liberal governments (Bartels, 2004). In addition, our work offers a theoretical framework that could help to explain why the negative relation between inequality and happiness is stronger in Europe than it is in the United States. Alesina et al. (2004) proposed that the American emphasis on meritocratic ideology renders economic inequality less aversive to Americans than to Europeans (see also Hartz, 1955). Our studies provide support for the notion that ideological differences can, in fact, explain certain effects of inequality on happiness.

There is no reason to think that the effects we have identified here are unique to economic forms of inequality. Research suggests that highly egalitarian women are less happy in their marriages compared with their more traditional counterparts (Wilcox & Nock, 2006), apparently because they are more troubled by disparities in domestic labor (Coltrane, 2000).
Of course, happiness-causing beliefs and true beliefs are not necessarily the same.   But they aren't necessarily different, either.  We've long been warned not to kill bearers of bad news.  Happiness research suggests that we should also be careful not to kill bearers of good news.  Evidence that your problems aren't anyone else's fault are a benefit for your heart and mind alike.

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Zac writes:

"Some people say there's a woman to blame, but I know, it's my own damn fault."

I think this is a pretty strong intuition and I think few people would argue with it. But this is a time preference question, analogous to popping a blister or waiting it out. Sure, you know you'll feel better if you stop blaming others for your problems, but only at the cost of confronting your demons now and accepting responsibility.

Zac writes:

NB: The first link in this post is broken.

[Thanks, Zac. I fixed it.--Lauren (Econlib Ed.)]

Jason Malloy writes:

I think the key to this is the feeling of agency, which is vital to mental health. People need to feel some sense of control over their lives and environment.

Judith Rodin showed that giving nursing home residents a plant to take care of increased their health and lifespan, by giving them some necessary feeling of efficacy.

People that blame others (even if such blame is warranted), feel that they are at the mercy of chance and others, while people that blame themselves feel as though they had a choice in the matter, and can modify their behavior to prevent similar misfortune in the future.

If this has a political dimension, I do not know. Conservatives are more likely to believe in genes, predestination, and limited political change. On they other hand they are also less likely to feel that society limits agents, and stress personal responsibility, which indicates a strong belief that people can "help themselves". So you can spin it either way.

hacs writes:

How would European inequality be if they thought as Americans? That is, what is the strong of meritocratic ideas in Europe?

In Latin America, Meritocracy is noticed as a luxury good for some few who can afford it, a set of egalitarian expensive rules (called Equality of Opportunities) of some circles where American ideas are nurtured (with harmless local adaptations of course). It is a kind of restricted Meritocracy (better known among their local critics as "social apartheid", excluding circles) which ignore a basic principle of a truthful Meritocracy: accessibility (in any sense) of their rules. For example, if the labor market is strongly regulated blocking part-time jobs and similar, the public education is outrageously inferior than the private education from kindergarten to high school, and the public (free) higher education is clearly superior than the higher private education - the market pays bigger salaries to professionals (under)graduated in the public higher education institutions - but the formers offer the better paid careers only at business hours, that country hardly satisfies the principle of accessibility.

That is different from the compulsory equality is reasoned by leftists, it is the core of the idea of "...all men are created equal...".

Perhaps, they (the Europeans) have reasonable motives to think as they do.

Interesting. I'm the exact opposite. I always feel much, much, much more unhappy when my own mistakes lead to bad outcomes. If another person or force outside my control is responsible, I'll still be unhappy about the bad outcome but I'm usually less upset. After all, what could I have done to make things turn out differently? Nothing? All right, then, much less to dwell on and regret.

Thing is, though, there have been very few bad outcomes in my life for which I've found that others were to blame. It is precisely my finely honed sense of individualism, agency, self-responsibility, etc. that my own mistakes make me much more miserable than when others do me wrong.

El Presidente writes:

Sometimes other people really are to blame. Then what? Should we blame ourselves so we can "feel better", whatever that means?

I would say many would call me a "liberal". I've known plenty of "conservatives" who thought "liberals" were to blame for just about everything they despised. How would we square that with the 'happy conservative' generalization? I take solace from the notion that I can distinguish between what I control and what I do not, and that I can attribute multiple causation and mutual responsibility fairly well. Quite often it's not an either-or proposition. Sometimes WE are responsible, not YOU nor I alone. But even then there is responsibility and the possibility for improvement. Sometimes none of us are responsible and we should accept that some things are out of our hands. I don't believe for a moment that a conservative ideology predisposes one toward correct attribution, but rather perhaps toward unjustifiable certainty and unreasonably tidy explanations for less tidy phenomena.

I prefer to approach the dilemma of attribution a different way and I think this says it well, if not best:

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference." ~ Reinhold Niebuhr

Tim writes:

Re: "This could explain, in part, why conservative governments tend to increase inequality more than liberal governments"

Perhaps conservative governments do less to decrease inequality than liberal governments but that doesn't mean the conservative government is increasing inequality. It may be letting it increase but that isn't the same thing.

Tim writes:

Kevin - I agree. I'm also more unhappy when its my fault.

But perhaps the issue is not that something being your fault means you will directly not be as unhappy, but rather that if you blame others for things that really are your fault, you won't correct your mistakes, and thus you will tend to wind up less happy. If you haven't been doing things the right way, and then your recognize it, and fix it, you will be happier, than if your always blaming someone else, and never do anything to address your own faults and problems.

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