Have you ever wondered why some individuals blame others for their own shortcomings, mistakes, or misfortunes?
Perhaps it’s because blaming others is a defense mechanism—an unconscious process that protects the finger-pointer and blame-shifter from experiencing unpleasant feelings such as guilt or shame.
Blaming is usually considered part of the defense mechanism called projection, which involves denying one’s own anxiety-provoking or negative characteristics and seeing them instead in others.
For instance, if your romantic partner has recurrent thoughts of infidelity (e.g., cheating on you with your best friend), they may engage in projection and accuse you of wanting or planning to cheat on them.
Are certain individuals more likely to shift blame onto others? Yes, according to a recent series of investigations by Kaufmann and colleagues: Blamers tend to have difficulties with emotion regulation. Published in Personality and Individual Differences, the research is explained below.
Investigating emotion regulation and blame attribution
111 college students
Negative affect: Participants rated the statement, “Right now I feel [aggressive/angry/irritated],” on a 4-point scale.
Action-state orientation: The action control scale (12 items) was administered. A sample item is, “When I have lost something that is very valuable to me and I can’t find it anywhere: (a) I have a hard time concentrating on something else; (b) I put it out of my mind after a little while.” Note: Compared to state-oriented individuals, action-oriented people are often better at adjusting to demanding situations and regulating their emotions.
Process-Analytic Neuroticism Test for Adults: A computer test known as PANTER was used to assess blame. Participants imagined working as secretaries who were required to rate the appeal of 48 office activities (e.g., sharpening pencils). Half of the 48 tasks were chosen to be completed later. This selection was done either by the participants (self-selection task) or their “boss” (other-selection task). Subsequently, surprise memory tasks required determining if the items presented had been self-chosen or assigned.
Projection and introjection. “Projection was measured by FOA [false other-ascription] rates of self-selected unattractive items, when controlling for FOA rates of remaining unattractive items. Introjection was measured by FSA [false self-ascription] rates of assigned unattractive items, when controlling for FSA rates of remaining unattractive items.”
68 students (22 years old, on average; 79% female)
Measured were negative affect, in addition to positive affect, which was assessed with the three adjectives of joyful, elated, and excited. Subsequently, the action-control scale was completed.
As previously, the PANTER test was given, but with some minor changes. Namely, instead of selecting secretarial tasks, the objective was to select activities for measuring intelligence.
There were two emotion induction conditions. Participants watched either a scene of someone receiving a gift or a scene of attempted rape (from the movie Pretty Woman).
Affect was assessed twice more. Between the two measurements, participants completed the projection and the surprise memory tests.
108 individuals (average age of 21; 87.0% females)
The cover story again concerned working in an office. What changed was that participants listened to a mindfulness practice audio first. This was followed by rating their emotions/affect, action-state orientation, and attractiveness and selection of the activities.
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Participants were then randomly assigned to one of two 10-minute interview conditions. In the negative affect condition, they tried to recall a very upsetting incident. In the positive affect condition, they tried to recall a very happy event. They then reported their affect before and after completing the projection test and PANTER.
Poor emotion regulators blame others more
Study 1 findings: Poor emotion regulators “made more false other-ascriptions of self-selected unattractive activities (FOAself) when experiencing negative affect.” This agrees with the view that individuals who have difficulty coping with negative emotions tend to blame other people for their own bad choices. Good emotion regulators, in contrast, were not affected in this way by negative emotions.
Study 2 findings: Poor emotion regulators “made more false other-ascriptions of self-selected unattractive items (FOAself) when reporting high compared to low subjective anger.” In contrast, good emotion regulators’ “FOAself rates for unattractive items were unaffected by their level of subjective anger.”
Study 3 findings: Negative feelings appeared to “lead poor emotion regulators to project their own poor choices onto someone else.” After recalling a negative (versus positive) event, only poor emotion regulators “made more false other-ascriptions of self-selected unattractive items (FOAself).” Not surprisingly, blaming others appeared to reduce negative feelings.
The above research concluded that differences in emotion regulation predict whether we blame ourselves for our mistakes and misfortunes or we blame others. Specifically:
- When experiencing negative emotions, poor emotion regulators are more likely to assume other people are responsible for their own bad choices.
- Blaming others appears to reduce a person’s own negative emotions (e.g., anger, guilt, shame). This may explain why poor emotion regulators prefer to point fingers at others rather than holding themselves responsible.
The next time someone blames you and ignores their own part in a problem, consider the possibility that the behavior is a defense mechanism.
Specifically, it may be a defense mechanism aimed at protecting the blame-shifter’s fragile ego from being overwhelmed with negative emotions such as guilt and shame. Simply put, the finger-pointing comes from a place of high vulnerability.
Of course, understanding the causes of blame-shifting does not make the behavior right or justified. But it may make it easier to not take the finger-pointing personally and to handle it more successfully.
What if you have a tendency to blame others for your failures? Then learning effective emotion-regulation strategies could be useful.
Also, because impaired emotion regulation can be a feature of mental illness (e.g., lack of flexible thinking in depression), seeking therapy may be helpful as well.