Why Blame?

With experimental economics we can study the basic human tendencies that influence economic behaviour more generally.

Imagine that someone chooses a safe payoff for you that yields $15 instead of a risky alternative that yields you either $30 or $0 payoff (each equally likely to occur). Afterwards, you discover that you would have received $30 payoff if they had chosen the risky alternative instead. How would you feel? Would you be less inclined to pay this person or to allow them choose for you again?

In a laboratory study similar to this scenario, A/Prof Miller and his coauthors find that participants systematically blame (or praise) others based on outcomes that they cannot control or anticipate.

Blaming people based on outcomes that they cannot control may appear to be unjustified, but this behaviour follows a particular dismal logic. To understand this logic better, listen to Don Corleone address the other Dons, who he believes may be targeting his son, in the Oscar-winning film The Godfather:

"I'm a superstitious man, and if some unlucky accident should befall him - if he is to be shot in the head by a police officer, or be found hung dead in a jail cell... or if he should be struck by a bolt of lightning - then I'm going to blame some of the people in this room and then I do not forgive."

Exacting revenge because your son is struck by lightning seems irrational, but consider what Corleone's statement communicates to the other Dons: If Michael dies, he will hold them responsible. Their intentions and their words mean nothing. Making it look like an accident will not help them. Sitting on the sidelines will hurt them. With this warning, Corleone knows that it is not in the interest of the other Dons to make the wrong move. Therefore, if Michael does end up dying, then we should believe that the other Dons are not responsible. Nevertheless, in order to assure their good behaviour, it is critical that Don Corleone blame them anyway.

What do Don Corleone's threats have to do with the experimental choice task described in the scenario above? In that scenario participants received a $15 payoff, yet they blamed others for this choice based on an outcome that they knew no one could possibly foresee or control. Blaming others when you know that they could not possibly be responsible for the outcome is even more unreasonable than Don Corleone's behaviour. How can this behaviour be explained?

The Nobel prize winning economist F.A. Hayek wrote: "We assign responsibility to a man, not in order to say that as he was he might have acted differently, but in order to make him different."

A/Prof Miller and his coauthors argue that unjustified blame is a manifestation of an automatic emotional response that is adaptive more generally. People's tendency to blame in response to certain events acts like a formal contract with incentives, which, because it is predictable, disciplines the behaviour of others whose choices affect them. In a more typical environment outside of the laboratory, a certain degree of blame is adaptive. For example, if a risky venture yields $30 rather than $0, this typically suggests that the venture may have been more promising than it first appeared, which, because the agent did not choose it, is also informative about the agent's (low) level of attention and effort. The authors provide some suggestive evidence that people respond in their experiment as if they are carrying over their behaviour from the more typical environment.

There is a dismal lesson here: in order to ensure good behaviour, and maintain credibility, we may sometimes need to hold others responsible for events that we know they cannot control.

Based on the article: Gurdal, M.Y., Miller, J.B., & Rustichini, A. (2013), Why Blame?, Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 121, No. 6, pp. 1205-1246.