Why do our stories so often focus on finding fault?
In a recent New York Times Book Review, Alexander Star reviews sociologist Charles Tilly's slim "Credit and Blame," which examines how and why we feel the need to connect cause and effect when it comes to evaluating outcomes.
[W]hat counts as a good reason always depends on the relationship between who’s giving the reason and who’s taking it. If you spill a glass of wine on a stranger, you might shrug it off with a conventional remark like 'I’m a klutz.' If you spill a glass of wine on your wife, you are more apt to tell a story: 'I was feeling nervous because of the bills.' It’s one thing to give someone a bad explanation. It’s even worse to give the wrong kind of explanation. If you expect your doctor to give you a technical account of your illness and you receive a cliché instead, you feel you are not being taken seriously.....
But how do we do this? Reflecting on tort cases, Tilly suggests that we possess something like an 'all-purpose justice detector.' When something good or bad happens, we measure the magnitude of the change, identify an agent who helped bring it about and assess how the agent’s skills, knowledge and intentions figure in the result.
In 'Credit and Blame,' Tilly looks just as closely at our most ethically freighted explanations. When something happens that alters our environment for the better or for the worse, we are rarely content simply to say, 'Oh well, those are the breaks,' or 'I suppose I got lucky this time.'
In this case, creating stories in order to assign blame or to extend credit often misses the point entirely, particularly when complex social causes - or simply chance - are at work. The all-purpose justice detector misfires.
Wouldn't it be better if we stop making such evaluative judgments altogether?
Not really. Because as Star points out at the end of his review, those "justice detectors" are essential to social harmony, for "the task of setting things right — approximately."