When something goes wrong, it is instinctual for human beings to search for a cause. This provides a sense of control that can be quite positive. Understanding the causes of diseases, car crashes, and floods have brought us vaccines, breathalyzer tests, and levies. There is a difference however, between blame and understanding. Before continuing further, please take a moment and ponder that. When something goes wrong, do you reach for blame, or do you search for understanding?
Blame is easy. In our compartmentalized lives, frustrations get an assigned place for which we expect reparations for the inconvenience of experiencing resistance to our plans or disruptions in our endeavors.
Historians have looked at the events where unspeakable acts have been sanctioned by the masses within society. This is particularly the case as narratives surrounding the holocaust and World War II have led to endless examinations on the psychology of Adolf Hitler. While the issues surrounding these events are admittedly complex, Adolf Hitler’s ability to lead with such hateful rhetoric is not. The German people were suffering emotionally and economically from the fallout of World War I, and Hitler gave the populous someone to blame for their plight. The Jewish people became the scapegoat for the humiliating and economically devastating defeat the Germans were enduring. That’s it. That was the magic formula to get millions of people to suspend all compassion, logic, and human decency by sanctioning the genocide of an entire population of their fellow citizens. This happened in Rwanda in 1994 with numbers of slaughtered Tutsi estimated to be over 800,000. Assigning blame allows us to sanction all manner of deplorable behaviors. The micro of this is the dark seething undercurrent of contempt that exists when we “just can’t let it go”.
When we find ourselves deprived of that which we feel entitled to, we immediately assign blame. We blame our parents for not fostering our specialness enough. We blame them for not being responsible enough to have the college fund we needed in order for us to go to Harvard. We blame our exes for not being the partner we needed in order to live happily ever after. We blame our bosses, our presidents, and the police for every barrier to our attainment of satisfaction. We vocalize these beliefs ad nauseum, and find ample support in our efforts. Misery loves company. None of this is logical. None of this is beneficial. It is like giving an angry drunk a shot of bourbon the moment you see they are getting agitated. The bourbon feels good, but it doesn’t do good.
The physiology behind this is that when you are stressed, an angry outburst in the form of a physical or verbal attack on another person is temporarily effective stress relief.
“Stress fosters aggression because it reduces stress…Stress induced [aka frustration-induced] displacement aggression is ubiquitous in various species. Among baboons for example, nearly half of aggression is this type. A high ranking male loses a fight and chases a subadult male, who promptly bites a female, who lunges at an infant. My research shows that within the same dominance rank, the more a baboon tends to displace aggression after losing a fight, the lower his glucocorticoid [stress] levels (Sapolsky 2017).”
Taking our anger out on others feels good. We are all the angry drunk; it’s in our DNA. We are addicted to this blame response to adversity, and like all addictions, when unchecked they are our undoing. This thinking is extremely consistent with the reasons cited by mass shooters for their actions. Blame is the kindred cousin to revenge, and revenge is a hate cycle in perpetuity. This often turns inward when we blame ourselves for wrongdoings and shortcomings that we may not be responsible for. We shun understanding even in the service of self-forgiveness. Guilt and shame are the internalized responses to the reactive posturing that coincides with the assigning of blame.
We are indoctrinated to assign blame rather than search for understanding. Demagogues need to keep you drunk on the bourbon of blame so that you are easier to manipulate. Your ego needs this too for the same exact reason. Rehab your thinking by reaching for understanding. You will miss the narcotizing effects of blame at first but your gradual progress away from anger will bring emotional release. Let it go. Understanding is more work, but it is the solution to the gradual deterioration of the mind, body, and soul that results from the insidious poison of assigning blame.
Sapolsky, Robert. Brave (2017).