Emotional Competency

Explore the Logic of Passion

Assigning responsibility for a loss

You are sad, hurt, and probably angry because you suffered a loss, insult, or injury. Someone must be held responsible, who should we blame?


  1. Assigning responsibility for a loss.
  2. Disposing of grief.
  3. Disposing of your loss.

Related Terms

The terms: accuse, answer for, charge, hold responsible, incriminate, indict, fault, take the fall, and find guilty are synonyms for blame.

We blame others to dispose of problems and protect our sense of self-worth when things go bad. We take credit ourselves to enhance our sense of self-worth when things go well.

Origins and Benefits

Understanding the causes that contribute to a loss promotes learning and allows prevention of similar losses.

Assigning Blame

Assigning blame for your loss is an effort to sustain your stature as you resolve your grief. The questions: “Whose fault is it?”, “Who do you blame”, “Who do you hold responsible”, and “Are you willing to take the blame for this?” are so common we rarely give them a second thought. But they each help to perpetuate the fallacy of single cause—the mistaken belief that a single person, group, organization, decision, or event caused the loss. In almost every situation many factors contribute to each outcome. Relying quickly on blame to dispose of our loss also relies on the fallacy of intentional stance—the mistaken belief that results only follow from deliberate intent.  When things go well, many people are quick to take credit. When things go bad, surely the same number of people also contributed. Self-justification—describing events in a way that preserves our pride and reduces cognitive dissonance—causes us to distort the evidence and shift blame to others.

Optimists and pessimists tend to assign blame differently. The optimist takes broad credit for good outcomes and narrow responsibility for bad outcomes. The pessimist blames himself broadly for bad outcomes and attributes good outcomes to external factors.

A careful and thoughtful analysis will consider all the involved parties along with each of their actions and inactions before attributing causes. You can begin this analysis by answering these questions whenever a loss occurs:

  1. What are all the things that could have been done to prevent the loss?
  2. What people, groups, and organizations were involved in planning and carrying out the events leading to the loss?
  3. What decisions, events, failures, or inactions contributed to the loss?
  4. What actions did each take that contributed to the loss?
  5. What actions did they fail to take to prevent the loss?
  6. What did you do to contribute to the loss?
  7. Who had the earliest opportunity to avoid the loss? Who had the last chance? Why were these opportunities missed?
  8. How could you have prevented the loss?
  9. How do you divide up responsibility for the loss among all of the contributing factors you have identified? (Assign “percent responsibility” to each contributing factor and adjust this assignment to arrive at a total of 100%) How much responsibility falls on you?

The 9/11 commission report is an excellent example of careful analysis that results in allocating blame across many contributing causes. To understand the causes of the tragic September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States, the members of the 9/11 commission interviewed over 1,200 people in 10 countries and reviewed over two and a half million pages of documents, including some closely-guarded classified national security documents. The report begins by assigning blame broadly to “A failure of imagination” and ends with 97 specific recommendations for preventive action.

Cause-Effect Analysis

Several systematic approaches are used to carefully analyze and identify the many contributing causes of system failures. Each of these tools avoids the fallacy of single cause by helping to identify the many factors contributing to each outcome. One of the simplest and most powerful is the Cause-and-Effect diagram, also know as a fishbone diagram or an Ishikawa diagramExternal Link.

To illustrate use of the fishbone diagram, consider this example that identifies the factors contributing to a particular tragic automobile accident. Begin by identifying the loss being studied, in this case it is a particular auto accident. Then list high level categories of contributing factors, in this case “driver”, “car”, “road”, and “traffic” are each listed. Then enumerate the contributing causes under each of those categories. Continue expanding the outline until all the contributing factors are identified. Often simply asking “why did this happen” in a curious and nonthreatening way for each listed cause can help to expand the outline.  Consider all the evidence and a broad range of viewpoints. The information can be recorded in an outline as shown below, or more traditionally as an actual fishbone diagram.

Causes contributing to an Auto Accident:

  • Driver
    • Training
      • Driver completed only minimal driver training
    • Experience
      • New driver
      • Only practiced on local roads
    • Alertness
      • Got very little sleep last night
      • Had already been driving 15 hours today before the accident
      • Did not take rest stops, share driving, or drink coffee
    • Attention
      • Distracted by a cell phone call
      • Friends in the back seat were horsing around
    • Driving decisions
      • Not wearing seat belts
      • Speeding
  • Car
    • Vehicle design is prone to skids and rolls.
    • Brakes were badly worn.
    • Tire pressure was low
    • Poor visibility out the windows
    • No side-view mirrors
  • Road
    • Dangerous curve not well marked
    • Unlit roadway
    • Dangerous intersection
    • Slick surface
    • Non-reflective paint
    • Poor weather, night, fog, and rain.
  • Traffic
    • Other driver was not alert and experienced
    • Traffic was very variable; often no cars then suddenly lots of cars

This outline now provides a structure for allocating responsibility (assigning blame) to each contributing cause. Divide 100% responsibility across the major contributing factors. The resulting assignment might look like this:

  • 40% Driver related causes
  • 20% Car design and maintenance related causes
  • 30% Road design and road conditions
  • 10% Traffic, including the other driver.

Based on this analysis, who is to blame? It looks like the blame is shared across many causes with the driver (could that be you?) bearing the greatest blame at 40% and the other driver (traffic) bearing the least blame at 10%. This detailed analysis is probably substantially different from your immediate impulse to blame the other guy.


Stories capture our attention and often shift blame. Alluring stories often displace ambiguity and sometimes obscure facts. The best story often wins. Red herrings—stories designed to distract attention from inconvenient facts—are often used to avoid blame and shift blame. Stories can create scapegoats by shifting blame for the group's misfortune to one particular person. Because stories create a complete and consistent explanation of events, they tempt us to close off investigations, even before all the facts are uncovered. The story may distract us from what is relevant by making us so comfortable with what is irrelevant. Even if a story is true, it may present only one point of view and may not accurately represent all that happened.

Here are some common examples. If you do not eat fat you cannot become fat, so please do not blame sugar for your weight gain. Saddam Hussein is building weapons of mass destruction. We can blame him for the terrorism emerging from the Middle East. Illegal aliens are taking our jobs, look no further for the cause of our economic and social problems. Children's vaccinations cause autism, so now we have an object for our anger.

Enjoy stories, then keep probing, check the facts and continue the investigation.

Corrective Action

The term “corrective action” refers to steps taken to repair or recover from the loss. In our example this may include getting the car fixed and attending to any injured people or other property. It may also include paying restitution.

Preventive Action

The term “preventive action” refers to steps taken to learn from the original loss and to prevent additional similar losses. The phrase “you can be sure I'll never do that again” begins to capture the idea. Continuing with “and this is how I'll make sure it never happens again” completes the thought. In our example, taking steps to improve driving skill, stay alert, minimize distractions, use seat belts, and share the driving on long trips are all helpful preventive actions.

The Paths of Blame

Events that can trigger blaming are common and frequent occurrences. How we respond to those provocations and the choices we make critically affect our peace of mind, well being, and our lives. The following figure illustrates choices we have and paths we can take to either get stuck blaming and seeking revenge, or to constructively resolve the problem. Use this like you would any other map: 1) decide where you are now, 2) decide where you want to go, 3) choose the best path to get there, and 4) go down the chosen path. Keep in mind: as you walk you make your path.


This diagram is an example of a type of chart known by systems analysts as a state transition diagram. Each colored elliptical bubble represents a state of being that represents the way you are now. The labels on the arrows represent actions or events and the arrows show paths into or out of each state. You are at one place on this chart for one particular relationship or interaction at any particular time. Other people are likely to be in other places on the chart. This is similar to an ordinary road map where you plot where you are now, while other people are at other places on the same map. Begin the analysis at the green “OK” bubble, or wherever else you believe you are now.

OK: This is the beginning or neutral state. It corresponds to someone who is not now suffering a loss. The green color represents safety, tranquility, equanimity, and growth potential.

Loss: We were OK until we suffered a loss or injury. We are sad, hurt, and probably angry. The urge to blame someone for the loss is nearly overwhelming.

Injured: After the loss we are injured. We now face an important choice in how to proceed and cope with our loss. The injury contributes to our stress. The yellow color represents our loss.

Snap Judgment: We may yield to our primal thinking, make a snap judgment, and fall into the fallacy of single cause by finding someone to blame for our troubles. The orange color reflects the increasing danger this path encounters.

Blaming: Here we are finding someone, perhaps anyone, to pin the blame on.

Seeking Revenge: Having decided who is to blame, we can now seek revenge on them.

Vengeful: We are indulging our vengeful passions.

Careful Analysis: Rather than rushing to judgment and finding someone to blame, we decide to conduct a careful analysis, as described in detail above. We carefully create a cause-and-effect diagram to list all the contributing causes to the problem.

Causes Known: The analysis helps us to know all the causes that contributed to our loss. This information allows us to take effective corrective and preventive actions.

Corrective Action: We take steps to remedy the loss. We understand what we can change and what we cannot change and take constructive action.

Loss Mitigated: Although we cannot change the past, we have done what we can to repair the damage and reduce the loss.

Preventive Action: We learn from the mistakes that were made and take steps to prevent further similar problems from occurring.


  • “Success has many parents, but failure is an orphan.”
  • “It is no use to blame the looking glass if your face is awry.” ~ Nikolai Gogol
  • “Take your life in your own hands, and what happens? A terrible thing: no one to blame.” ~ Erica Jong
  • “When you blame others, you give up your power to change.” ~ Robert Anthony
  • “Blame is where we try to park our grief.”  ~ Leland R. Beaumont
  • “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything.” ~  Albert Einstein
  • “I screwed up.”  ~ President Barack Obama
  • “Don't blame the victim.” ~
  • “By your stumbling, the world is perfected.” Sri Aurobindo


Root Cause Analysis : A Tool for Total Quality Management, by Paul F. Wilson

Juran's Quality Control Handbook, J.M. Juran and Frank M. Gryna

ISO 9001, The Standard Interpretation, by Leland R. Beaumont

Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks.

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