It's all your fault: why we're so quick to blame others

The Covid-19 crisis seems to have turned into the Olympic Games of finger pointing

K5KR42 Portrait Of Two Young Businessmen Pointing Finger At Each Other
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In many countries, the management of and communication about the Covid-19 global crisis has sadly turned into one big blame game. Citizens blame their governments for not being prepared for the crisis.

Countries blame each other for allegedly hiding information. Governments blame people for not following the safety guidelines issued by public health authorities. The list goes on.

This pandemic seems to have turned into the Olympic Games of finger pointing.

This week I blamed the person next in line at the supermarket for not respecting the physical distance between us. Guess what? She blamed me back

Take the governments being blamed for their lack of preparedness. The 2019 Global Health Security (GHS) Index report published last year by a group of US-based non-governmental and research organisations said: “National health security is fundamentally weak around the world.

No country is fully prepared for epidemics or pandemics, and every country has important gaps to address.”

These are not the words of another crisis management expert stating the obvious after the outbreak. According to this report, 85 per cent of the 195 countries analysed had not carried out any biological threat simulation exercise in the past 12 months.

It echoes Bill Gates’s words at the 2015 TED conference in Vancouver about how little investment had been made to stop an epidemic. This is also something the World Economic Forum has been working on for more than 20 years.

As the former WEF global head of strategy in health and healthcare, I can tell you that pandemic preparedness has always been on top of the Forum’s agenda.

It pioneered pandemic-preparedness simulation programmes in Davos and around the world, not only to raise awareness about the risk among countries and organisations but to provide innovative ways to improve readiness.

Since the tools to manage pandemics and information about the lack of preparedness of countries were available, at first glance it might seem that blaming governments is justified.

But it is not that straightforward, especially when one looks closer at the GHS Index, which ranks the 195 countries investigated from most to least prepared.

The findings are surprising in light of what has happened with the coronavirus pandemic.

According to this index published in October 2019, the country that was best prepared for an epidemic or a pandemic was the US, followed by the UK.

As of today, according to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus online resource centre, these are the countries with the biggest death toll. Clearly there is a gap between the analysis and the facts.

The way preparedness was evaluated by the experts who conducted the research and wrote the GHS report, which served as a reference, is flawed.

Hence, if the preparedness evaluation tools are not good, how could organisations and countries be well prepared?

My point here is not to find excuses for the lack of preparedness. Nor is it to lecture on how we should do our research before pointing fingers at others, regardless of our motivation.

I would be ill advised to do so. One day this week I blamed the person next in line at the supermarket for not respecting the necessary physical distance between us. Guess what? She blamed me back.

What can possibly be going on in our brains for our default mode to be pointing fingers at others, especially when we are stressed and under pressure? We often don’t even realise that we might be guilty of the very thing for which we reproach others.

A study published in Neuropsychologia earlier this year by a group of researchers from Taiwan sheds new light on what is going on, the neural mechanisms at play when we attribute blame to others.

I particularly liked the researchers’ approach, consisting of exploring the asymmetry that exists between passively observing unfair or non-moral behaviours and being actively involved in these behaviours.

Thanks to psychological tests combined with neurotechnologies monitoring brain activity, the study identified significant differences in brain processes when participants contributed to immoral behaviours as opposed to when they just witnessed them.

The researchers indicated that “people tend to describe others' immoral behaviours as intentional and dispositional and their own as unintentional events”.

So maybe this is one of the keys to understanding why people blame others. It might not just be because of their lack of leadership and accountability, but also because of a gap between how we judge things done by others and how we perceive the same actions when we are actively involved.

I have spent most of my scientific and business career leveraging behavioural and brain sciences to measure and better understand the gap between our intention and our actions, between what we perceive and what is actually happening in our brains.

Opinion polls that seem to be the main “research” used by governments and media to know how people feel about their government leaders during the Covid-19 crisis and beyond are missing a core part of blame attribution.

As usual, (neuro) biology does not explain everything; environment and context matter a lot. But there is no doubt that the blame game is also one big brain game.

Professor Olivier Oullier is the president of Emotiv, a neuroscientist and a DJ

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