The Personalization of Blame Supermeme

In The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse by Rebecca D. Costa, she outlines five supermemes that lead to the stagnation and collapse of civilizations: Irrational Opposition, The Personalization of Blame, Counterfeit Correlation, Silo Thinking, and Extreme Economics. This healthymemory blog post will address the personalization of blame supermeme.

Whenever there is a problem the immediate response is to try to find the individual or individuals who are responsible for the problem, and to blame that person or persons. The problem here is that the causes of most problems in our complex world are systemic. By blaming an individual or individuals the system problems can be overlooked and the problem will continue to occur.

One of the best examples is when there is an airplane crash and the crash is attributed to pilot error. All this does is to confirm that we humans are all fallible. So what’s new? The questions is why did the pilot commit the error, or series of errors. If the pilot was not alone, then the question goes to the crew level to ascertain why the crew did not respond appropriately. If the pilot was alone, reasonable questions follow. Was the pilot adequately trained? Was the pilot overly tired, or in poor health, and if so, why? Did the design of the flight deck contribute to the problem? These are the questions that need to be asked at the system level if future crashes are to be avoided.

A very serious problem is medical error. Again, the initial response is to blame a nurse or doctor. Doing this is counterproductive and makes it difficult to find the problem when everyone and the hospital itself is preoccupied with saving its respective keister. A 2000 Institute of Medicine report estimated that medical errors are estimated to result in about between 44,000 and 98,000 preventable deaths and 1,000,000 excess injuries each year in U.S. Hospitals. This is a virtual holocaust that occurs annually that exceeds highway deaths and most war deaths. These deaths and injuries are often due to communication problems, being it the failure to pass information, illegible writing, or failing to contact and involve the correct people. The failure to use simple checklists results in unnecessary deaths and injury (see the healthymemory blog post, “A Cognitive Safety Net”). There is much that can be done here, but the first step is not to look for someone to blame, but instead to look at the entire system and look for points of systemic failure.

Osama bin Laden has been the face of terrorism. But his killing, while being satisfying to many, has not led to the end of terrorism. There are many terrorist organizations and a variety of causes of terrorism. They must be understood and approached from a systemic perspective. Looking at terrorism in terms of a most wanted list is not going to be effective.

Obesity, pollution and global warming are major societal problems that can be blamed on ourselves. Although the argument can be made that these problems can be addressed at an individual level, individuals can stop overeating and stop polluting, these approaches will not be effective. First it must be recognized that we are fallible human beings. With respect to obesity, eating as much high caloric whenever it was available was a good adaptive mechanism that allowed our species to survive. Unfortunately, we are left with this evolutionary adaptive mechanism, which is not longer adaptive Unfortunately, will power is a resource that can easily be depleted. This ego depletion is a loss in will or mental energy and can be measured by glucose metabolism.1

So systemic approaches need to be applied. In the case of obesity, sizes of fast foods can be restricted. Unhealthy foods can be taxed. Healthy foods could be made easier to obtain (for example, replacing the junk food in most vending machines with healthy foods). Ultimately, I think the food industry needs to become more creative and make food and drink with fewer calories more palatable. I believe they have made progress in the beverage industry.

With respect to environmental pollution and global warming, possible solutions include heavy taxes on heavy vehicles, and higher gas taxes to pay for better public transportation. Tax credits can be given for environmental friendly vehicles. Incentives for both individuals and industry to more away from fossil fuels can be provided.

A major flaw in Costa’s book is her misunderstanding and consequent mis-characterization of B.F. Skinner and behavioral psychology, which has much to offer. It espouses an empirical approach in which facts and beliefs are strongly linked. Systemic approaches to behavioral modification to promote environmental friendly and personal healthy behaviors are quite possible.

1Baumeister, R.E., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Discovering the Greatest Human Strength.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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