Fault Lines

Those of us who have raised children know what often happens after pointing out muddy footprints on the floor, dishes left on the table from an afternoon snack, or some other dereliction of duty.  With an indignant look on his or her little face, the culprit declares, “But it’s not my fault.  I didn’t mean to do it.”

Can most adults better understand the concept of being responsible for their own messes?  Although it might seem reasonable to expect that they would, a new research study dealing with theory of mind suggests instead that many people see good intentions as paramount.  The study, conducted by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, compared the responses of autistic and non-autistic participants when presented with moral judgment scenarios.  The researchers found a significant difference in how the two groups viewed situations such as the one described here:

Imagine this: Janet and her friend are kayaking in a part of the ocean with many jellyfish. Janet had read that the jellyfish aren’t dangerous, and tells her friend it’s alright to swim. Her friend is stung by a jellyfish and dies.

Who’s to blame?

Researchers who used this scenario in a recent study found that people with autism were more likely to blame Janet for her friend’s death than people without autism. Most normally functioning people understand the death of Janet’s friend was accidental, because Janet didn’t realize the jellyfish were poisonous, they said.

This study left me wondering: Do most non-autistic people really believe that having good intentions means they can’t be to blame for anything?  If so, I’d say that goes a long way toward explaining the breakdown of accountability in today’s society and in the political sphere.  To his supporters, George W. Bush came across as a nice friendly well-meaning fellow, as someone they might like to sit down with and have a few beers on a Saturday night.  Even if his war in Iraq cost thousands of lives and wrecked the economy—well, he didn’t intend for that to happen, so it wasn’t his fault.  And as for New Orleans ending up underwater because the levees weren’t being adequately maintained, nobody thought they would fail; it was just an accident.  Oopsie.

It should be noted that there is an entire field of law—negligence—that specifically deals with assigning fault for accidents.  The case law in this area is quite comprehensive and has developed over many centuries.  There’s nothing at all new, and certainly nothing pathological, about the idea that a person can be at fault for an accident or mistake regardless of his or her intentions.

What’s going on here might be more accurately described as a collision of worldviews.  Some people need constant social validation; their entire identity depends on being reassured at all times that they are good people doing everything right. This group has been feeling increasingly beleaguered in recent years, as one social justice movement after another has challenged their prejudices and forced them to change their ways.  Now, like petulant children, they seem to be declaring that not only is it perfectly fine for them to leave their dirty dishes all over the house, but anyone who’s mean enough to say it is their fault must be abnormal.

related: Good Manners Reconsidered

related: Are Autistics More Honest?  If So, What Then?

on 02/2/11 in featured, Politics | 5 Comments | Read More

Comments (5)


  1. Stephanie says:


    I would say that “blame” is flexible enough to account for at least some of the point here. After all, “blame” and “responsible” are not synonymous.

    For example, if Willy is being careless and accidentally steps on my foot, I don’t blame him. It was an accident. I do, however, ask him to be more careful. If Willy steps on my foot intentionally, that’s a different matter. In this sense, intention is a factor in blame (a loaded, guilt-ridden word); intention is not a factor in responsibility.

    Similarly, negligence laws can be applied to assign or forego responsibility. Sometimes negligence is just that. Somebody does something they shouldn’t, something they could avoid, and they cause damage. Sometimes negligence is applied for ridiculous reasons, however. The woman who sued McDonald’s because she spilled hot coffee and was scalded. McDonald’s was supposedly negligent because the coffee didn’t come with a warning label, as if a warning label would have prevented the foolish woman from choosing to hold her cup between her legs. Another case involved a woman who’s RV “practically drove itself,” so she left it to do so and went and made dinner or something. A warning label burried in the instruction manual would have prevented this, so the lawyers claim. So would common sense on the part of the driver.

    (Another consideration: It’s possible that the jellyfish were harmless for most people, but the friend was allergic and that’s why the sting was fatal. And what about Janet’s friend’s responsibility to inform herself, instead of trusting Janet for her information?)

    I believe our society is more concerned about rights than responsibilities. It’s problematic and perhaps this study relates to that. But I’ve also seen Willy writhing in guilt-ridden anguish over things that were not his fault because he was a little too literal in his interpretation of cause-and-effect.

  2. Gwen McKay says:

    Yes, I agree that it’s likely the autistics in the study were reading the word “blame” to mean responsible for the outcome, whereas other participants saw it as an emotionally loaded word implying moral condemnation as a bad person. And there are indeed several possible ways to look at the Janet scenario.

    You also have a good point that being too critical of oneself and others can cause a person to become overly anxious and upset, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we should all be perfectionists who beat ourselves up emotionally whenever we make any mistakes. I hope that our society will evolve toward a happy medium.

  3. Stephanie says:

    I, too, hope our society will evolve toward a happy medium. Accountabilty is very important.

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