Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Shifting blame is socially contagious

Date:
November 22, 2009
Source:
University of Southern California
Summary:
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.

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."

A manager can keep a lid on the behavior by rewarding employees who learn from their mistakes and by making a point to acknowledge publicly his or her own mistakes, Fast says. Managers may also want to assign blame, when necessary, in private and offer praise in public to create a positive attitude in the workplace.

Or, managers could follow the lead of companies such as Intuit, which implemented a "When Learning Hurts" session where they celebrated and learned from mistakes, rather than pointing fingers and assigning blame. The blame contagion research provides empirical evidence that such a practice can avoid negative effects in the culture of the organization.

Anyone can become a blamer, Fast says, but there are some common traits. Typically, they are more ego defensive, have a higher likelihood of being narcissistic, and tend to feel chronically insecure.

President Richard Nixon is one example the authors point to in the study. Nixon harbored an intense need to enhance and protect his self-image and, as a result, made a practice of blaming others for his shortcomings. His former aides reported that that this ego-defensiveness pervaded his administration. It was the culture of fear and blame that ultimately led to Nixon's political downfall.

The experiments showed that individuals who watched someone blame another for mistakes went on to do the same with others. In one experiment, half of the participants were asked to read a newspaper article about a failure by Governor Schwarzenegger who blamed special interest groups for the controversial special election that failed in 2005, costing the state $250 million. A second group read an article in which the governor took full responsibility for the failure.

Those who read about the governor blaming special interest groups were more likely to blame others for their own, unrelated shortcomings, compared with those who read about Schwarzenegger shouldering the responsibility.

Another experiment found that self-affirmation inoculated participants from blame. The tendency for blame to spread was completely eliminated in a group of participants who had the opportunity to affirm their self-worth.

"By giving participants the chance to bolster their self-worth we removed their need to self protect though subsequent blaming," says Fast.

The results have particularly important implications for CEOs. Executives and leaders would be wise to learn from such examples, Fast suggests, and instead display behaviors that help to foster a culture of psychological safety, learning, and innovation.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Southern California. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

University of Southern California. "Shifting blame is socially contagious." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 November 2009. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/11/091119194124.htm>.
University of Southern California. (2009, November 22). Shifting blame is socially contagious. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 28, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/11/091119194124.htm
University of Southern California. "Shifting blame is socially contagious." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/11/091119194124.htm (accessed July 28, 2014).

Share This




More Science & Society News

Monday, July 28, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

$15B Deal on Vets' Health Care Reached

$15B Deal on Vets' Health Care Reached

AP (July 28, 2014) A bipartisan deal to improve veterans health care would authorize at least $15 billion in emergency spending to fix a veterans program scandalized by long patient wait times and falsified records. (July 28) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
The Carbon Trap: US Exports Global Warming

The Carbon Trap: US Exports Global Warming

AP (July 28, 2014) AP Investigation: As the Obama administration weans the country off dirty fuels, energy companies are ramping-up overseas coal exports at a heavy price. (July 28) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Russia Saves Gecko Sex Satellite, Media Has Some Fun With It

Russia Saves Gecko Sex Satellite, Media Has Some Fun With It

Newsy (July 27, 2014) The satellite is back under ground control after a tense few days, but with a gecko sex experiment on board, the media just couldn't help themselves. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Cellphone Unlocking Bill Clears U.S. House, Heads to Obama

Cellphone Unlocking Bill Clears U.S. House, Heads to Obama

Reuters - US Online Video (July 27, 2014) Congress gets rid of pesky law that made it illegal to "unlock" mobile phones without permission, giving consumers the option to use the same phone on a competitor's wireless network. Mana Rabiee reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins