Taking The Blame Sucks -- And Our Brains Know It

closeup of businessman pointing ...
closeup of businessman pointing ...

It's official: Feeling blame for something sucks. And apparently, our minds try to provide some distance between an action and effect if the effect is negative.

The finding, published in the journal Current Biology, explores the concept of "sense of agency," which is the idea of voluntarily doing something to produce an external sensory event (like flipping a switch so that the light will turn on). Researchers from University College London wanted to see if the sense of time between the act and the event was affected if the event ended up being positive or negative.

To find this out, they conducted several experiments. For one, researchers had study participants press a key that was then followed by either a positive sound (achievement, amusement), a negative sound (fear, disgust) or a neutral sound. Then, researchers asked the participants to try to estimate the time of pressing the key, or the time of hearing the sound.

They found that if a positive sound was heard, the lag time between the pressing of the key and the hearing of the sound was reported as shorter, compared with if a negative sound was heard.

"Our result suggests that people may really experience less responsibility for negative than for positive outcomes," study researcher Patrick Haggard, of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at the university, said in a statement. "This is not merely a retrospective justification about how well we have done: the actual experience that we have changes, even in basic aspects like its timing."