In business classes we are told to be responsible and take responsibility for our action. Get mugged? Well, lock your door next time. That sort of thing.

But that's not how most humans behave. Humans blame others for their mistakes and problems they could have prevented. Why?

What's the benefit of blaming others compared to taking responsibility?

  • $\begingroup$ This isn't a cog sci question. You're better off looking for some social psych research on attribution. $\endgroup$
    – user4035
    Dec 23, 2013 at 5:33
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @user3106040 This question could be improved, but social psych is definitely on topic for this site. "cognitive sciences" is just a name but the site is quite inclusive and includes psychology, cognitive science, psychiatry and neurosciences. $\endgroup$ Dec 23, 2013 at 5:45
  • $\begingroup$ To me, it seems obvious. Blaming others externalizes problems onto other people. I'm not wrong, you're wrong. This preserves self-esteem and self-efficacy (of course at another's expense). I think a more interesting question would be: Why do some people take responsibility rather than blame others? THIS seems like swimming against the current. $\endgroup$
    – Doug
    Dec 24, 2013 at 19:01
  • $\begingroup$ But that doesn't change the amount of their bank account? $\endgroup$
    – user4951
    Dec 25, 2013 at 9:35

1 Answer 1


The Abilene Paradox is one of the situations in which individuals may blame others for their actions because that is how they perceived the situation. Consider this anecdote (video):

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. The wife says, "Sounds like a great idea." The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, "Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go." The mother-in-law then says, "Of course I want to go. I haven't been to Abilene in a long time." The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive.

They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted. One of them dishonestly says, "It was a great trip, wasn't it?" The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, "I wasn't delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you." The wife says, "I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that." The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored. The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

Nobody wanted to go, yet the group decision was contrary to everyone's personal opinion since every individual perceived that another individual had taken a decision, arguing against which would simply result in discord.

When the decision turns out to be bad, then everybody simply states what they initially believed which was that another individual of the group had clearly wanted to go, and they had simply consented to the decision. This of course, is one scenario, in which individuals may blame another (specific) person for a group decision.

The benefits of this can be explained in many ways. One of the ways to analyze the benefit is by using cognitive dissonance theory. In simple terms, when our behavior (or thinking) does not match up with our belief, it results in mental stress due to the incongruity of the situation. To counter or save ourselves from that incongruity, we either adjust our belief or alter our behavior(thinking). In this case, the act of taking the trip was against our belief, and hence taking responsibility (agreeing that the decision was yours) for the action would be incongruous. Therefore, we blame another individual for the group decision, as that is easier to process (congruent) and less mentally stressful.

  • $\begingroup$ Does the Abilene Paradox explain scapegoating? $\endgroup$
    – user3832
    Jan 4, 2014 at 7:36
  • $\begingroup$ @caseyr547 Its funny you should ask. I was reminded of this paradox after I read your question. However, after giving it some thought I am not entirely certain it applies in the specific context you were asking about. The scapegoat is usually an underling in the team, while the person whose decision everybody follows/respects in the case of the Abilene paradox is usually one of the senior members or bosses or respected members. From my limited knowledge and reading of sociology texts, I cannot be certain whether the paradox applies in the case of "scapegoats". $\endgroup$
    – asheeshr
    Jan 4, 2014 at 11:14
  • $\begingroup$ I wonder if people blame others to convince others that something bad is someone else' fault and that's actually a good strategy. People often lie by truly believing their lies. If the damage of those lies are trivial for them then believing a lie can be beneficial $\endgroup$
    – user4951
    Jun 5, 2019 at 16:57

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