The blame game is all in your head

MIT researchers discover how humans determine ‘who’s to blame?’ Kirsten Levermore reports

‘Blame’ – responsibility for a fault or wrong.

For centuries, philosophers and psychologists have thought that the assignation of blame was related to how humans deal with difficult or inconvenient situations, using blame to fight for survival in the workplace, or find closure in the home.

But how do we actually decide who to blame?

Counterfactual simulation

It’s a big soccer game; tens of thousands of fans line the stands, the clock ticks off the final few seconds. Suddenly, the soccer ball swings towards the end of the pitch. The crowd roars – someone, stop it! A defender jumps in front of the ball: the ball hits an outstretched leg, and goes straight into their own goal.

The referee must decide:

Was the ball going into the goal before the defender stepped in the ball’s path? Or was the defender just trying to (unsuccessfully) do his job?

Own goal, or deflection?

A great strike, or a terrible mistake?

Using a set of billiard balls, a team of researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has replicated this exact kind of situation with one question at its heart: how does the referee decide who is to blame?

Answer: Counterfactual simulation.

In other words, the study has proven that people imagine what would have happened if a suspected cause had not intervened. We simulate alternative outcomes.

So, the referee imagines where the ball would have travelled had the defender not jumped in front of it. This ‘simulation’ is built on what the person looking to cast blame already knows. In the case of the referee, it’s an underlying understanding of physics, and the memory of how the ball was travelling, at what speed and in what direction.

The study, published this week in Psychological Science, saw volunteers set up with eye-tracking technology and shown videos depicting different possible outcomes of a collision involving two billiard balls.

In some cases, the collision knocked one of the balls through a gate; in others, it prevented the ball from doing so.

Before watching the videos, volunteers were split into two groups:

  • Group 1 – participants were told, before watching the video, that they would be asked to rate how strongly they agreed with statements related to ball A’s effect on ball B (“Ball A caused ball B to go through the gate. On a scale of 1-100, how much do you agree or disagree with that statement?”)
  • Group 2 – participants were shown the video and asked what they believed was the outcome of the collision (“What happened?”)

As volunteers watched the videos, the researchers were able to track their eye movements using an infrared light that reflects off the pupil and reveals where the eye is looking.

Then, came the blame game.

The team found that when Group 1 were asked their questions (about ball A’s effect on the path of ball B i.e. about blame), their eyes followed the course that ball B would have taken had ball A not interfered.

Group 2, however, who were asked only about the actual outcome and not to consider blame, did not look along ball B’s alternative pathway. They did not simulate an alternative simulation.

This the first time researchers have been able to gain direct insight into how we imagine possible outcomes that did not occur, and how this mechanism plays into our ‘blaming’ behaviours.

“What’s really cool about eye tracking is it lets you see things that you’re not consciously aware of,” senior author, Joshua Tenenbaum highlights. “When psychologists and philosophers have proposed the idea of counterfactual simulation, they haven’t necessarily meant that you do this consciously. It’s something going on [under] the surface, and eye tracking is able to reveal that.”

Next steps

Lead author of the study, Tobias Gerstenberg from MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, believes the next step for researchers is to observe how people cast blame in more complex situations. “In many cases [counterfactual simulation] may not be supported by eye movements, because there are many kinds of abstract counterfactual thinking that we just do in our mind. But the billiard-ball collisions lead to a particular kind of counterfactual simulation where we can see it.”

If successful, the applications could be relevant in a range of industries, from business to therapy, and even in the law courts.

– Kirsten Levermore is assistant editor of Dialogue. Original materials supplied by Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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