The science of blame

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After Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed into the French Alps last month, the questions started out simple. Who or what caused the crash? Was it terrorists? Engine problems? A strange weather incident? Flight control issues?

When the answer was revealed to be a pilot — acting alone, with no known motive beyond his own self-destruction — the questions intensified: did the airline know he was depressed? Should it have known he was depressed? Could it have known he was depressed? Did the agency err in having lax guidelines for the number of pilots required to be in the cockpit? Was the German government complicit in the lack of knowledge of the pilot's mental state because of the country's strong health-care privacy laws?

This is a familiar pattern of questioning: when Adam Lanza shot and killed dozens at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a frenzied search for answers followed. What took the school so long to lock down? Why did Lanza's mother let him have guns? Why did the government allow the purchase of those types of guns? Were we as a society paying enough attention to those with autism spectrum disorders?

And again with Elliot Rodger, the "Santa Barbara killer" who left lengthy YouTube manifestos online and in print about killing women he felt had spurned him before he took to the Southern California streets with a handgun. How did people miss these public messages? How were the threats not flagged? How did his parents not know about his dangerous behavior? Did the sexual objectification of women in video games and media contribute to Rodger's sense of entitlement to female affection?

At least in the case of Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings pilot, the answers to all of those questions might very well be "no": while Lubitz did tell the airline in 2009 that he was depressed and needed a break from training, almost nothing in his more recent medical history or treatment gave any indication that an incident like this could have happened. So it seems like the blame ends at Lubitz. Then why do we keep looking for answers and trying to hold others responsible?

Our impulse to blame is strong, but it's also complicated and imperfect. Cognitive psychology tells us that following a negative event our impulse to blame has both an emotional "why" component driven by anger and sadness, and a more rational "who or what is going to make sure this doesn't happen again" set in motion by anxiety and fear. These processes are closely related and often at cross-purposes. Punishing someone for a past event doesn't always make it more likely we can prevent bad events in the future. Conversely, making things safer in the future doesn't always give us the vindication of punishment. Having a better understanding of why we blame and what we're seeking when we do can perhaps get to a more satisfactory — and productive — end.