As we’ve collectively tried to make sense of the dystopian year of 2020, countries, governments, and individuals have fallen subject to the Covid-19 blame game. At the start of the pandemic, we called out individuals taking the threat of the virus too seriously, sharing footage of fights over toilet paper in supermarkets and empty aisle shelves. Soon, we began criticising individuals not taking it seriously enough – those breaking the rules of lockdown or continuing to walk around unmasked.
More recently, headlines have turned to generational blame. “Are young people to blame for a new rise in COVID-19 cases?” asked a Sky News article, linking a spike in coronavirus infections with “post-lockdown street parties and raves.”
But soon enough, blame was countered with more blame. “Don’t blame us for UK’s coronavirus spike, say young people,” protested an article in the Guardian, alongside an influx of similar reports, claiming that blame was counterproductive: exacerbating tension and de-incentivizing social adherence.
This pattern of blaming, the alternating gestures of being both the blamer and the subject of blame, has played out across the world. With each accusation, the root cause of the damage, the virus, together with the socioeconomic inequalities that leave certain groups more vulnerable to its effects, is blotched out of site, and in its place are culpable targets.
The psychology of the scapegoat
“When disease strikes and humans suffer,” says Dr. Liise-anne Pirofski, chief of infectious diseases at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, “the need to understand why is very powerful. And, unfortunately, the identification of a scapegoat is sometimes inevitable.”
The word ‘scapegoat’ originates from the Day of Atonement in Leviticus in the Bible. According to the ritual, one of two goats is sacrificed to god, whilst the other, the scapegoat, is cast into the wilderness, taking with it the sins and impurities of the community.
Scapegoating has occurred throughout history as a response to crises. When the ‘Black Death’ struck in the 14th century, tales spread of Jews pouring poisonous powder into wells. More recently, in Tanzania, a period of extreme drought led to the persecution of older women, who were accused of witchcraft. In locating a suitable culprit, blame constructs a palatable narrative. It helps our suffering make sense.
In Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Robert Sapolsky, explains that there are neurological reasons why we blame one another. According to one experiment, he reports, the best way to reduce the stress levels of rats who have just received a shock, is it to make it easy for it to turn around and bite another rat. By the same token, Sapolsky proclaims that about 50% of baboon aggression is labelled ‘displacement aggression’: one animal taking out their pain on a less threatening target.
“Humans excel at stress-induced displacement aggression,” he propounds, “consider how economic downturns increase rates of spousal and child abuse”.
A culture of blame
Blame gives us the feeling of regaining control. It resolves chaos and uncertainty with understanding and coherence. But whilst blaming may offer a temporary release of stress, it collectively contributes to more anxiety. Blame creates an atmosphere of fear, which eradicates trust, reduces empathy and discourages pro-social behaviour.
“A history of psychological research tells us that creating ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’ is not productive for society and can result in ill-founded prejudices and in-group favouritism,” says Dr Frances Maratos, Associate Professor and Reader in Emotion Science.
Marators was one of the authors of a recent open letter, urging the government to reframe their Covid messaging. She upholds that employing “fear-based” and “them and us” language increases “disengagement/withdrawal behaviours”, whilst adopting language that is “non-divisive” and “allows all to take personal responsibility” is more likely to encourage positive behaviour shifts.
“Not only does such a culture create biases and more entrenched positions, but it also inhibits creativity,” imparts Emotional Intelligence Coach, Svetlana Whitener, “a culture of blame corresponds with a fear to take risks, a fear to “stick one’s neck out.”
As well as creating an environment that stunts innovative thought, blame prevents us from getting to the core of an issue. “Blaming provides an early and artificial solution to a complex problem” argues Organizational Consultant, Marilyn Paul. “It provides a simplistic view of a complex reality: I know what the problem is, and you’re it.”
Indeed, if we are to shift from a culture of blame to a culture of accountability, we can enhance our problem-solving abilities. Whilst blaming causes us to tunnel vision, being accountable means that we look at situations holistically. Accountability increases the flow of information between parties, encouraging collaborative decision making and productive problem solving. It means thinking reparatively rather than with scrutiny, motivating individuals to contribute to their environments rather than withdraw from them.
How can we create a culture of accountability at work?
- Shift our language from fault to responsibility. If, when something goes wrong, we replace “whose fault is this”, to “who is responsible for this”, we move from a question that is reprimanding, to one that is empowering. Whilst “fault” looks to shame a culprit, “responsibility” is forward-looking, motivating an employee to think strategically and take genuine action.
- Take open responsibility for mistakes. Rather than attempting to cover up the things that go wrong, we should be able to confidently take ownership of our errors and miscalculations. This creates an environment in which employees feel psychologically safe, improving communication and encouraging productive risk-taking.
- Emphasise learning. When we replace blame with curiosity, we create a culture in which employees are always considering what they can learn from their mistakes. This prevents companies becoming fixed in old ways of doing things, meaning that they are well-equipped to adapt to change.