Shifting Blame Is Socially Contagious

(Science Daily) — Nov. 22, 2009 — Merely observing someone publicly blame an individual in an organization for a problem — even when the target is innocent — greatly increases the odds that the practice of blaming others will spread with the tenacity of the H1N1 flu, according to new research from the USC Marshall School of Business and Stanford University.

Nathanael J. Fast, an assistant professor of management and organization at the USC Marshall School of Business and Larissa Tiedens, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford, conducted four different experiments and found that publicly blaming others dramatically increases the likelihood that the practice will become viral. The reason: blame spreads quickly because it triggers the perception that one’s self-image is under assault and must be protected.

The study called “Blame Contagion: The Automatic Transmission of Self-Serving Attributions” is believed to be the first to examine whether shifting blame to others is socially contagious. The results will be published in the November issue of Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

“When we see others protecting their egos, we become defensive too,” says Fast, the study’s lead author. “We then try to protect our own self-image by blaming others for our mistakes, which may feel good in the moment.” He adds that in the long run, such behavior could hurt one’s reputation and be destructive to an organization and further to our society as a whole.

Tiedens said the study didn’t specifically look at the impact of hard economic times, but it undoubtedly makes the problem worse. “Blaming becomes common when people are worried about their safety in an organization,” she said. “There is likely to be more blaming going on when people feel their jobs are threatened.”

Fast says that when public blaming becomes common practice — especially by leaders — its effects on an organization can be insidious and withering: Individuals who are fearful of being blamed for something become less willing to take risks, are less innovative or creative, and are less likely to learn from their mistakes.

“Blame creates a culture of fear,” Fast said, “and this leads to a host of negative consequences for individuals and for groups.”

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