Failure can be an important and inspiring ingredient of our life – if we are able to learn from it and use the experience to improve ourselves. But not always do we learn from failing. We probably all know situations in which we fail and blame other people: “If X had given me those documents earlier, I would have been able to finish this task on time”. The interesting difference between being angry at oneself and at someone else is that the former is more likely to make us want to improve ourselves. Being angry at another person, by contrast, does not trigger any motivation to improve ourselves – after all, it wasn’t our fault!
My colleague Martijn van Zomeren (http://www.rug.nl/staff/m.van.zomeren/) and I were wondering whether there is anything that would systematically influence whether people take responsibility for shortcomings and improve or whether they blame someone else and do not improve. Prior research has consistently shown that the two things people care about most in them and others are competence and morality. However, among these two dimensions, morality is primary. This is because being perceived as moral is essential for remaining a valuable member of the social groups we belong to – and thus for our survival in the long run. As a consequence of this primacy of morality, people react very sensitively to either being evaluated as immoral themselves or to indications of immorality in others. Especially the notion that they themselves could be judged as immoral appears to push people in a defensive mode. Social psychologist and morality researcher Benoit Monin calls this tendency in people “gnawing their teeth at saints” rather than being “inspired to work on their own halos”.
With the above in mind, we ran a series of studies, and we found that people reported more outrage and anger when group shortcomings were framed as immoral than as incompetent. Also, they focused their negative emotions on others rather than on themselves. We also showed that this emotional focus on the other group lessened the motivation to improve: blaming the other stops you from learning. Participants who learned that their group’s failure was a sign of incompetence, on the other hand, directed their outrage at their own group much more than at the better performing group. This emotional focus was associated with a strong desire to improve in the future. So blaming yourself improves learning. And failure in ‘morality’ more often leads to blaming the others, while failing in competence more often leads to blaming oneself, hence offers more opportunity to learn.
Our findings offer an explanation for what followed the economic recession in 2008, which triggered strong moral outrage in public discourse and the media: Rather than self-critically work on improvement, the banks were going back to business soon after the collapse, including large bonuses for the same risk-taking bankers that were perceived as having caused the crisis in the first place. Fortunately, our research also points to a way of avoiding the defensiveness and refusal to improve that arises from accusations of immorality: Framing shortcomings in terms of competence seems to be a potent tool for circumventing the defensiveness and blaming of others, and to motivate improvement. Not surprisingly, suggesting that someone lacks the resources to perform well is more motivating than suggesting he or she lacks the moral integrity to do better.
Monin, B. (2007). Holier than me? Threatening social comparison in the moral domain. Revue Internationale de Psychologie Sociale, 1, 53–68.
Täuber, S. & van Zomeren, M. (2013). Outrage towards whom? Threats to moral group status impede striving to improve via outgroup-directed outrage. European Journal of Social Psychology,43, 149-159. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.1930
Täuber, S. & van Zomeren, M. (2012). Refusing intergroup help from the morally superior: How one group’s moral superiority leads to another group’s reluctance to seek their help. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 420-423. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.08.014