With Blame Comes Hope

Patri Friedman reminds us why it’s important to own up to our failures or missteps, and makes the interesting connection between accepting blame and holding hope:

After the smoke clears, we begin to apportion blame.  We have a natural tendency to try to shift the blame onto others, avoiding guilt and responsibility for errors.  But there are some obvious problems with this strategy.

Errors are valuable training instances, and our bias against accepting blame reduces the number available.  If we could externally shift blame while internally maintaining a rational apportionment, we would not be reducing our training data, but people don’t work like that.  To be believable, our efforts to shift blame must be sincere, and so our brain engages in self-deception rather than partitioning. The result will then be to tend to underestimate the dangers of our action (and inaction) and underestimate the degree to which we can prevent bad outcomes by acting differently.

It is this latter point which gives the connection between blame and hope.  For to avoid blame is to avoid responsibility, and to avoid responsibility is to disempower oneself.  To say "I was not to blame for what happened" is to say "I could not have prevented it", which is to say "In future situations like that, I will be helpless".

So let us instead be honest about how we could have acted differently, even when things turn out craptacularly.  We can trick our minds into doing this by focusing on the positive, forward-looking nature of responsibility: thinking about how we might do better in the future, rather than the negative-sum fight to divide the anti-spoils of the past.  And reminding ourselves that some bitter blame is a small price to pay to hold onto hope.

This skill might fall in the "maturity" bucket that I discussed earlier. Some really smart people are still immature, and thus have difficulty admitting errors or missteps.

It’s not hard to accept blame when it’s obvious to you and everyone else that you messed up. It’s hard when it’s obvious to everyone else except you. Sometimes we become so convinced of our case that we continue to try to rationally argue for it even though everyone else has made up their mind to place the blame on you. Sometimes, it’s better to disarm your critics by giving some ground and then looking forward, no matter how much you disagree with their views, rather than, as Friedman says, "fight to divide the anti-spoils of the past."

3 Responses to With Blame Comes Hope

  1. Krishna says:

    Very honorable and gallant; but not always pragmatic, especially in business. Sometimes it’s advisable to keep it under wraps in larger interest. The outcome of instant acknowledgements could be disastrous sometimes. If all ends well, re-opening the can really doesn’t matter.

    When working in groups, acknowledgment of a misstep calls for a huge ego reversal. But that’s the least of concerns. If your error of judgment led to wastage of group sweat, the group is left disillusioned. The fear then, is not one of loss of reputation as much it is of sustaining the group interest in the project.

  2. Ben Casnocha says:

    Agreed that it’s easier said than done!

  3. Loxley says:

    Its a nice article.

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