Blame Series Bonus: Why We Want That Dish For Free, an Uncut Interview with Bertram Malle

Still from Five Easy Pieces (Columbia Pictures, 1970)

In his most recent pieceRD associate editor Andrew Aghapour explores why it is psychologically difficult, but increasingly important, to blame social institutions for causing harm.  The article cites an interview with Bertram Malle, a professor of psychology at Brown University, which is available here in full.

For more on this topic, explore It’s Your Fault, a series on blame in contemporary society by RD’s The Cubit.


AA: Is it fair to say that the psychological mechanisms we use for blaming are tuned for judging human individuals?

BM: Yes. Because that’s the only place, and the only context, in which we can actually learn this. The way my research group has thought for a while about how blame emerges developmentally and gets refined in the course of growing up in a community, is really as an extension of ordinary social cognition. By “social cognition” we refer to peoples’ ability to look at a stream of behavior, parse it into its actions, recognize intentions that underlie these actions, and then infer goals, beliefs, desires, emotions, from the person’s behavior.

All of that is necessary for coordination in any kind of community. But because social communities come with tension between the individual’s interests and the community’s interests, sometimes there will be “violations” of the community’s interests by an individual or by a subset of individuals. And so the extension of social cognition—perceiving all of these behaviors and making inferences about mental states and explaining behaviors—all of that just goes right into moral evaluations of how we should make sense of a norm violation.

Consider “Why did he kick his friend in the shin?” We use the very same processes that we normally use to make sense of human behavior to now make sense of this violation of human behavior. Blaming is in a sense a socially grown mechanism to increase or decrease the degree of responding to violations, depending on (as research has shown consistently) whether the violations were intentional or not, whether they were based on justified reasons or unjustified reasons, and so on.

So for me, there’s a continuity of ordinary social cognition to blaming as ordinary moral cognition. (But of course we can expand our social cognition to animals, to drawings in cartoon books, and we can also extend our blame responses to animals, robots, film characters, novel characters, and so on.)

Something that I’m very interested in right now is why it’s often very difficult to blame institutions. For example, I had a flight cancelled recently, and at first I was really mad at Jet Blue. The more I thought about it, though, the more I felt like I was just a victim of chance, of a large system that was ultimately blind to my suffering. Why is it difficult, at a psychological level, to blame institutions or complex systems?

Well, again, we could go back and say it is also difficult to explain an institution’s behavior—to apply ordinary social cognition to institutions. The very challenge we have is that we don’t interact with institutions, we interact with individual people and also small groups. So we actually have a fine time explaining a small group’s behavior, like a team or a string quartet.

But once you get into institutions, first of all, we don’t even know who is in the institution. Who is a member and who is not? Who plays what role? What causal contribution do they make? Did anybody make a decision, did subgroups make a decision, did they just sort of all play their little parts and the aggregation of all these individual parts make up the institution, the collective behavior?

None of this we normally know about an institution, and even if they haven’t done anything bad yet, just watching them you’d wonder why exactly and who exactly does what. But of course we care the most about institutions when they perform some kind of good or bad behavior. Institutions have power. They have an enormous influence, they can withhold goods or they can confer goods—and in your case, Jet Blue withheld the goods of you actually being able to take your flight. Now, we’d like to respond to these agents the same way we respond when individuals do things to us, and we use the same cognitive tools, but then we don’t know to whom to direct our blame, whom to ask for an explanation, whom to demand compensation from.

We also wonder (and this is what research on blame shows), even when something unintentional happens—say you know that the airline didn’t intentionally keep you from flying—the question that humans often pose is, “Was this preventable?” “Could they have done something to prevent that?” And that’s when we wonder—well, who could have done something to prevent it? The person at the counter? The pilot? The CEO?

We don’t know, and so we have, in a sense, a certain disorientation and don’t know to whom we can direct our displeasure. That’s why you have customer service institutions, so people know to whom to send their email or letter of complaint. (Well, you don’t even know who receives this stuff.) All of this, to me, again, is a result of the difficulties of dealing with amorphous institutions that don’t have clear boundaries. And then, of course, you have that same difficulty with blaming (or praising, for that matter) institutions that don’t have clear boundaries.

Is it fair to say that one of the benefits of a customer service department is that it takes advantage of our psychological dispositions, preventing us from anthropomorphizing JetBlue as a single entity? All of a sudden we’re engaging with a particular person who seems distant from the event that has us calling in the first place?

I think that’s an interesting idea. I think it depends entirely on how this person responds. It could lead to increased displeasure, and increased frustration, if that person doesn’t give us at least a little bit of compensation, or whatever we expect. If they do that, we will probably forgive them or at least give up and move on, still not knowing exactly how the event came about and who caused it and who could prevent it in the future. At least, for now, we have received some kind of compensation.

This is important because we often experience feelings of unfairness. We have put in our part—we went to the airport, we paid for our ticket, we spent our time, we stood in line—and then the flight was cancelled. So there’s a discrepancy between the inputs and the outputs, there’s a sense of injustice and unfairness—that’s why compensation is so important. That’s also why dissatisfied customers at restaurants want to get their dish for free, or get a free glass of wine, or a free dessert, because that balances out the input-output equation.

So if the customer service agent gives you something, then you feel compensated, then you’re okay, and it’s not such a cognitive puzzle, and also not such a frustration to deal with the amorphous agent of the airline as a whole. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the customer service agent or the person at the desk, who sat there, right when the doors were closed and the flight took off, just as you arrived. It doesn’t really matter who exactly provides some justice. The institution probably just prefers to funnel it through one channel, namely customer service, because then they can have stricter rules, what is given, how much is given, under what circumstances, and so on.

There are larger social problems than missed flights, like racist policing or the legacy of segregated housing. Major events and systemic problems are very difficult for us to understand and attribute blame to. How could the psychology of blame help us to be savvier in the way that we blame institutions?

I think I would probably start a step before that. Rather than waiting until something is done that is considered a violation and then figure out how people blame, I think we should probably educate people—and institutions should become better communicators—about how these major things work.

So for example, the US seems to, through its culture and history, have not given ordinary citizens a very clear understanding that all the common goods we are surrounded by—all the parking lots and streets and sidewalks and trees—all of that is a common good that has to be paid for by some common process, like taxes. (Compare this to Europe, where people seem to understand all that and take it for granted.)

So there isn’t really a very clear causal understanding of how these things work, how institutions take in, for example, payments, taxes, or conferred power, and how they’re distributed and cause processes and goods in the world that people then benefit from. I think, if we started already with that, gave people a better understanding, communicated better how institutions work, how their rules work, we would probably increase something akin to what scholars have called “procedural justice”—increase procedural confidence, procedural trust, trusting institutions, because we understand, “Oh, okay, that’s how it works, that’s what they’re trying to do that; it doesn’t always succeed, but they’re doing the best they can, they’re adjusting along the way, they’re improving.” If we had that knowledge, we would blame a lot less because we would recognize that many of these things that are not perfect are either blameless or deserve much less blame. All they may require is a little bit of feedback, or learning.

So I think that you would basically start too late if you tried to use the psychology of blame to improve the communication and the co-living between individuals and their institutional surroundings. It would have to start earlier, and in a sense you could prevent some of the blaming.

Or, if violations do happen, you would give people the kind of information that they normally want, and expect each other to use, when they blame and when they’re supposed to blame fairly. Because the research shows that you can blame fairly if you know whether the person did it intentionally, what her alternatives were, what her reasons were; and if the violation was unintentional, what the person could have done differently and should have done differently.

None of that knowledge is typically available about collective or institutional behavior. When we see a policeman, a particular person, shoot a particular other person, then you want to understand that particular situation. It doesn’t really help if people then get some kind of collective explanation, saying something like, “Well, but in general our police enforcement is very fair and non-biased and not racist”, and so on. It doesn’t help. There would need to be much more detailed information. (And still, you would probably sometimes have the absolute right to blame individual people for individual behavior, even if the institution as a whole might be trusted and might be just.)

So maybe one way to think about this is that if we find ourselves blaming institutions, we’re already using a flawed set of psychological mechanisms, because institutions don’t act the way that individuals do?

I wouldn’t put it quite the way that you said it—it’s not that we’re using flawed psychological mechanisms. We’re using the only psychological mechanisms we have, which are well practiced and well honed—not perfect, but quite well-regulated, at least for individuals and small groups.

Institutions are just an incredibly different kind of thing (I’m not even sure I’d want to say “agent,” though some of them are agents) to deal with. In a sense, all we can do is understand institutions like an agent, unless we study sociology for 20 years and political science on top of that, and try to get a handle on how institutions actually work as causal structures in the world. You can’t expect that of ordinary people. I think we can improve that knowledge, even for ordinary people, by explaining to them a little better how these institutions work and how they are both flawed but fundamentally much better than many of the alternatives. And then, it’s not so much that people are using the “wrong” psychological mechanisms, but they need to be offered the information that allows them to make slightly better use of the psychological mechanisms that they have and inevitably will use.

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