February 18, 2015, by Tom Stafford

Persuasive blame and third party blame

A new paper proposes a comprehensive psychological theory of blame (Malle, Guglielmo & Monroe, 2014). The heart of it is what they call a Path Model of Blame, which focusses on the processes by which a cognitive agent comes to identify that someone is to blame (in Malle et al’s formulation, blame is always agent directed, rather than object or action directed. It is interesting to speculate on where this leaves potentially blameworthy sub-personal processes like implicit biases). This path involves factors such as detecting a blameworthy event, identifying agent causality and considerations of agent intentionality, obligation and capacity.

The authors note that the cognitive factors involved in blame have received far more attention than the social factors, but they assert unequivocally that blame is at heart a social phenomenon. “A deeply communicative act” (p.171), blame is an acceptable act of social regulation, which requires warrant (i.e. socially recognised legitimacy). They distinguish two forms of blame. The first kind is persuasive blame, in which the blame act is expected to elicit a reaction from the blamed, leading to a negotiation of the terms of blame and redress. This negotiation of the terms or legitimacy of blame, they say, can be usefully understood using their Path model (so discussion between blamer and blamed might centre on the event, the actor, the obligation, etc). Persuasive blaming holds the greatest promise of working (i.e. of producing the most socially acceptable moral address) when blame is delivered with low emotional intensity and high thoughtfulness (Voiklis et al., 2014 discuss blame in the wider space of moral criticism). This account of blame as persuasive suggests to me that one useful operationalisation of when a moral communication is perceived as blame might be the extent to which the agent feels the need to engage with or deny the communication.

The contrast with persuasive blame is third person blame – blame addressed to other observers in the absence of the offender. Malle et al say that such third-person blaming may serve to express anger, to reassert or affirm norms, and to seek validation or consensus as a prelude to social exclusion. Compare with persuasive blame which has as its goal restoration of social balance, and the inclusion of the offender within that social order. It doesn’t seem to me that third person blame can’t be a prelude to persuasive blame, especially when we consider the complex social environment that might delay, hinder or complicate persuasive blame. Malle et al discuss the runaway effects when blame becomes explicitly recognised and manipulated as a process of social regulation (p.173 ‘The Darker Side of Moral Criticism’, including their discussion of blame management, defensive blaming, the ‘blame game’, etc).

Blame is a common feature of public discourse. We debate who is to blame, and why, often with accusations and counter-accusations. As with other normative issues, it sometimes seems like more time is spent on positioning than on ameliorative action. Perhaps correct positioning is a necessary prelude to action (just as third party blame may prelude persuasive blame), but I have to wonder if the persuasive component of blame is sometimes lost in the socially-reinforced excitement of third party blame. Perhaps it would be useful to speculate about what kind of structures would support persuasive moral communication against performative moral communication.

Malle, B. F., Guglielmo, S., & Monroe, A. E. (2014). A theory of blame. Psychological Inquiry, 25(2), 147-186.

Voiklis, J., Cusimano, C., & Malle, B. F. (2014, July). A social-conceptual map of moral criticism. Paper presented at the 36th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, Quebec City, Canada

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