So it's over. The love-affair-turned-celebrity-marriage-for-the-ages between Angelina and Brad has run its course. And the only thing I want to know is: who blew it? I've never been an Angelina fan, so I'd like to blame her. But then there's a story out there painting Brad as a drinking, pot-smoking philanderer who wasn't so nice to his kids. At the end of the day, we all know we won't ever really know what happened. Which begs the question: why am I hung up on pinning blame?
Every major world religion shames blaming. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all encourage self-responsibility and accountability, and say that the blame-game keeps us from introspection and self-improvement. Buddhism contends that blaming keeps one from learning life lessons that lead to enlightenment. Even from a secular point of view, blame isn't a good thing: if you blame, you can't grow. And yet, we all do it.
I recently conducted a research study where I asked divorced women who was to blame for the failure of their marriage: 64% of women put the blame either entirely or mostly on their ex; 29% were willing the share the blame equally. That leaves a very small proportion who are willing to hold themselves responsible.
What ever happened to "it takes two to tango?"
Men are more likely to accept blame: only 44% point the finger mostly at their ex; about the same proportion (42%) spread the blame 50/50. That still leaves about 4 in 10 divorced American men who are blocking themselves from self-improvement and growth.
Blaming is a mechanism of self-defense and control. We point the finger at someone whose behavior we want to change and to whom we want to express feelings of disappointment or disapproval. We also blame to protect ourselves from attack or to avoid doing the hard work of holding ourselves accountable. In politics, blaming is often part of a strategy: successfully hold some other person or group accountable and you gain leverage. In fact, politicians seem more interested in avoiding blame for bad things happening than taking credit for good things happening.
Surely there must be an up-side to blame. In an unstable marriage, where emotions are raw and intense, and there's more than enough hurt to go around, blaming can feel like a life preserver, self-improvement a minor priority. This especially seems true when your spouse is doing things that aren't quite right - like cheating or yelling at the kids. There's plenty of time to learn and grow later, once enough time has passed that you can think objectively. But there could be a problem with this as well, and that problem is what social psychologists call outcome bias. Apparently, people have a hard time objectively judging others' past decisions because they are biased by how things turn out. Some decisions precede outcomes that are driven largely by chance, but that doesn't seem to matter to us: if things turn out badly, we tend to blame the decision-maker even if the outcome isn't their fault.
Imagine your spouse quitting a lucrative job to follow his dream of owning his own business, only to end up unemployed because the economy tanks. Outcome bias dictates that you won't necessarily blame economic forces for the huge blow to your household income. Instead, you're likely to blame your spouse, even though he couldn't predict the economic collapse, and even though at the time of his decision all signs strongly pointed to "yes." In other words, hindsight can make unjustified blame more likely. Which means you could be fighting with your loved one over something that neither of you are responsible for. It's hard to imagine any marriage surviving round after round of this.
With potential bias at play, blame can be a dangerous game. It might serve us better to place ourselves back in time, in those moments when the "bad" decisions in question were made, and ask if those decisions were fair given that - and not the present - context. If a couple thinks less in terms of outcome and more in terms of action, they might better determine who needs to own up to what.
Maybe Brad deserves to be blamed for his impending divorce. Maybe it's Angelina's fault. Either way, I'm going to back off from caring about who broke the marriage. It's a fun distraction, but it's not like I want to see "Team Pitt" or "Team Jolie" t-shirts floating around. Besides, the blame-game that's flourishing in the presidential race... now that's WAY more interesting.