Culture & Society

Quick Study: Who’s to Blame?

A surprising experiment could change the way you think about conflicts.

December 13, 2022

| by Kelsey Doyle

Views about who deserves the blame for social conflicts may seem almost impossible to change. Yet in a recent study, Nir Halevy, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Preeti Vani, a PhD student, found that opinions about contentious issues could be shifted simply by rephrasing a question.

Here, in the first episode of our new video series Quick Study, Halevy and Vani discuss their findings and what they reveal about the way we think about assigning blame to other groups.

Full Transcript

Nir Halevy: We live in a time where a lot of social conflicts are presented in moral terms. People wonder, “Who is the perpetrator and who is the victim here?” And the way we answer that question shapes the narrative that emerges.

Preeti Vani: Once people decide who to blame, how easy is it to change their views? In our research, we discovered that we can actually flip the script in terms of who gets blamed for longstanding conflicts. In some of our experiments, we were able to change who’s being blamed by almost 30%.

Nir Halevy: We focused on entrenched ongoing disputes where it would be most surprising if we could shift people’s moral judgments. So we started with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If you’re an Israeli, who do you blame for the lack of a solution? Provided with just two choices, most Israelis may choose to blame the Palestinians. We wondered what would happen if people considered more options. So we asked them to divide the blame between the Palestinians and three different Israeli subgroups, the right wing, left wing, and center blocks. Other participants were given the choice between blaming Israel or three different Palestinian political groups.

Preeti Vani: What we did is called unpacking. Unpacking groups into their constituent subgroups is something we do intuitively all the time. For example, you can think about the EU as a single entity or you can think about Italy, France, Germany, and other countries within it. As it turns out, unpacking changes how people decide which groups deserve the greater share of the blame. In our study, when the Palestinian side was unpacked into three subgroups, participants assigned about two-thirds of the blame to it as a whole. But when the Israeli side was unpacked, we saw a complete flip. Now, the Israeli side received two-thirds of the blame.

Nir Halevy: When people form moral judgments, they don’t reason like scientists. In fact, they often think like prosecutors or defense attorneys trying to protect their sense of moral self-regard, or avoid feelings of collective guilt. When you unpack a group, you find ways to shift or distance blame from your specific subgroup. If I as an Israeli don’t want to think that Israel is mostly responsible for the conflict, I might say, “Well, there are subgroups within Israeli society who are more to blame than others.” If I don’t identify with them, my sense of moral self-regard is not harmed by assigning a lot of blame to them.

Preeti Vani: We also ran similar experiments on racial tensions in the US and on the gender wage gap, and found that people’s opinions on who’s to blame could be flipped there as well.

Nir Halevy: Who’s to blame for the gender gap in wages? Women or men? Unpacking women into white women, Black women and other ethnicities led people to assign more blame to women. And when we unpacked men into those same racial categories, people increased the amount of blame they assigned to men.

Preeti Vani: There’s something else going on here, a phenomenon called partition dependence. That’s a cognitive process where people assign more importance to a specific category when it’s broken into smaller parts. Once you know what partition dependence is, you start to see it in so many different places.

Nir Halevy: For example, when people are asked how likely it is that they will die of natural causes, they give a lower estimate than when they’re asked to consider a long list of natural causes of death. Knowing this, insurance salespeople sometimes use a list of potentially deadly fates to persuade consumers to purchase insurance plans.

Preeti Vani: People are often wrong about their intuitive belief that their moralized views can’t be shifted, yet we were able to shift them pretty significantly through reframing the way that we asked just one question.

Nir Halevy: What we discovered in our research is a tool that can be used in many different ways. On the positive side, educators can use it to engage young people in conversations about the malleability of social justice. On the negative side, politicians can use it to pour more gasoline on the flames of hate in intergroup conflict.

Preeti Vani: So what can you do with this? If you hear someone lamenting about how it’s not even worth their time to engage with people across the aisle, you could mention that moral views can be surprisingly malleable. Our research shows that small changes can have large ripple effects. You have the power to change how people think about important societal issues.

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