Academic Minute Podcast

Gail Sahar, Wheaton College – The Psychology of Blame

Politicians can do better when it comes to interacting with the public.

Gail Sahar, Jane Oxford Keiter professor of psychology at Wheaton College, examines how.

Gail Sahar is the Jane Oxford Keiter Professor of Psychology at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, where she teaches courses on social psychology, political psychology, and statistics. Her research focuses on attitudes toward controversial social issues, such as poverty, abortion, and terrorism. She is particularly interested in how ideologies or worldviews influence perceptions of responsibility and blame for social problems and how blame is linked with emotions and political attitudes.

Gail earned her PhD at UCLA and her BA at the University of Southern California.

Her interest in controversial social issues began long before her college years, however. Since her childhood in rural Washington state, she has been fascinated by how intelligent people can have such drastically diverging opinions on the issues of the day and hoped to find ways to bridge the gap between ideological opposites.

The Psychology of Blame

One of the many assets that human beings have over artificial intelligence like ChatGPT is the ability to generate and evaluate the causes of events in the world. And yet, politicians and pundits today rarely appeal to us in a way that engages this type of thinking.

They often assume that those who share their worldview will automatically get behind whatever policy they wish to promote without regard for the fact that human beings are capable of nuanced thought. And, when it comes to identifying causes of or solutions to societal problems, one could argue that the gap between what politicians think we want and what most of us really want looms particularly large at the present moment.

I have spent my academic career trying to understand how our beliefs about the causes of social problems are related to our attitudes. In these studies, on topics from poverty to unwanted pregnancy to terrorism, I have found that although worldviews influence our attitudes toward a range of political policies, they do so partially by influencing our perceptions of the cause of the problem–that is, who or what is to blame for it.

Research, including my own, reveals that the public is able to come to appropriate causal conclusions as long as they have reasonable information to guide them.

Although worldviews affect how we place blame for the problem by nudging us to endorse causes that fit with our ideology, people of different ideological stripes often respond to a given cause similarly. Both liberals and conservatives prefer helping someone who is perceived as not to blame over someone who is held responsible. This sequence: ideology—cause—blame—emotion—attitude, is common to liberals and conservatives alike.

They may come to different conclusions, but they do not really think so differently about issues.

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[Wheaton] – Psychology professor examines blame, behavior, politics


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