What Is the Blame Game?

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What Is the Blame Game?

Picture a classroom where students are working on a group project. The deadline is approaching, but they’re far from finished and the teacher is enquiring about the status of the project.

As the students start to explain themselves, “the blame game” begins. Everyone starts to point fingers at each other and the discussion goes round in circles as they try to avoid the blame and pin it on someone else.

Does this situation seem familiar? Have you experienced something similar, at work perhaps? You’ve probably even watched the blame game unfold on the news when there’s a disaster, and politicians and executives fall all over themselves trying to shift the blame onto everyone but themselves.

“When people face repercussions or unintended consequences after making a mistake, their fear may cause them to defend themselves by shifting the blame away from themselves and onto a scapegoat,” says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University.

This article explores reasons why people play the blame game, how it can impact the people involved, and some tips to prevent it.

Reasons People Play the Blame Game

These are some reasons why people play the blame game, according to Dr. Romanoff.

Avoid Responsibility

People find themselves in this dynamic if they try to detach or distance themselves from culpability when something goes wrong and their position is threatened. They try to avoid responsibility by shifting the blame onto someone else.

Protect Their Reputation

People tend to play the blame game when they fear that owning their mistakes or taking responsibility for an error could negatively impact the way they are perceived.

These people tend to be insecure about their identities and fear that small missteps could become global reflections of who they are, or that they could face catastrophic consequences, like being fired.

Signs of the Blame Game

Sometimes it can be quite evident that someone is trying to shirk responsibility. Other times, it can be more subtle.

Here are some indications that someone is playing the blame game:

  • Finger-pointing: People may point fingers at others. For instance, they may say “Jill was supposed to send me the data for the graphs. I couldn’t make the graphs without that information.”
  • Denial: People may deny their responsibility. For instance, they may say “No one told me we needed to include graphs in the presentation, how was I supposed to know?”
  • Exclusion: People may consistently exclude or marginalize a member of the group, and then make them the scapegoat when things go wrong.

Impact of the Blame Game

Playing the blame game is unproductive and can lead to negative consequences all around. Dr. Romanoff explains how it can affect the situation, the people, and organizations involved.

Impact on Situations

Shifting blame onto other people has a two-fold negative effect as it creates tension and resentment in relationships and diverts valuable attention and resources away from addressing the original problem. 

People become defensive and ignite a vicious cycle of passing the buck and attacking each other, instead of banding together as a team to fix the problem through a solution-oriented approach.

Impact on People 

The blame game shapes how you view the world as you will constantly be concerned with avoiding the burden of being accountable for wrongdoing, which takes valuable energy away from forming strong connections with those around you. 

Others are perceived as competitors instead of partners, which causes these folks to be isolated, less well-liked, and mistrusted. In turn, these people create self-fulfilling prophecies, as others will view them as selfish, and be less inclined to help them or advocate on their behalf in the wake of future mistakes, further polarizing them against others.

There is an aspect of righteous indignation when it comes to blame and how it makes others feel dignified in comparison to the person at fault. Blame is a negative experience that can be painful and humiliating for the person who is assigned fault. Not only does it hurt the person, but it does little good beyond social comparison and diverts vital resources away from the original issue.

Impact on Organizations

Over time, a culture of blame and negativity at an organization can cause the organization to suffer. It can inhibit creativity and innovation, as people are too scared to try things for fear of repercussions if something goes wrong.

It can also cause other stakeholders such as customers and suppliers to lose faith in the organization. For instance, if a customer calls because they have an issue and the response is “That error was made by someone in accounting, we’re the operations team and we can’t do anything about it,” there is bound to be frustration.

A lot of problems may also go unaddressed, because people may be too afraid to report them and face the blame. This can lead to a lot of inefficiency in organizations, as people may find it easier to pretend there aren’t any problems instead.

How to Prevent the Blame Game

These are some steps that can help prevent a cycle of blame:

  • Assign responsibilities: It can be helpful to clearly establish responsibilities, so that everyone is aware of what they need to do and what everyone else is doing. This can help reduce ambiguity, leaving less room for people to point fingers at other people. It can also help foster a sense of ownership and personal accountability.
  • Realize that mistakes are inevitable: Realize that mistakes are ubiquitous and a part of the human experience; it’s not a question about if, but when we make them, says Dr. Romanoff.
  • Respond with empathy: Even if someone has made a mistake, it’s important to view their situation empathetically. Perhaps their child was sick, or they were overworked and missed something. Look for ways to offer them support.
  • Focus on solutions: “The focus should be shifted from who is to blame to what can be done about it. Instead of assigning a person to direct frustration towards, focus your energy on the problem, including ways to correct it and how to prevent it from happening in the future,” says Dr. Romanoff.

A Word From Verywell

When something goes wrong, it can be tempting to protect yourself and blame somebody else. However, the situation suffers if everyone is more concerned with assigning blame than finding a solution. Playing the blame game can also lead to toxic relationships as people turn against each other and attack one another. 

Instead, promoting personal accountability, openness, a clear division of responsibilities, and a solution-focused approach is more productive.

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2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Tigard DW. Taking the blame: appropriate responses to medical error. J Med Ethics. 2019;45(2):101-105. doi:10.1136/medethics-2017-104687