It happens every day. A husband blames his wife for her perceived shortcomings. Workers blame a supervisor for his office bullying. One social group blames another for the social problems in their community. Sometimes, blame can be constructive and can motivate its target to change. All too often, however, blame is overly harsh. Harsh blame can be detrimental to relationships and is the focus of research by Michael Gill.
“Blaming permeates every type of human relationship,” says Gill, associate professor of psychology. “Whether it’s intergroup or interpersonal, the way we handle situations in which we disapprove of another’s behavior has a tremendous impact on relationships and on society.”
Gill’s Blame Lab examines how harsh, spiteful blame can be shaped into something calmer and more constructive. At the core of his work is the historicist narrative. He defines a historicist narrative as a storied account of the life history of a wrongdoer, which explains his or her acquisition of disagreeable traits in terms of an unfortunate life history.
“The story provides an understanding of the process by which a person or group came to have some objectionable quality,” he says. “Historicist narratives are quite effective at removing harshness from blame responses.”
To date, Gill’s published work has centered on demonstrating that historicist narratives can temper blame (other researchers had cast doubt on this possibility) and on providing a thorough examination of why they do so. He has shown, for example, that perceptions of the extent of the transgressor’s prior emotional suffering and perceptions of the degree of intentionality behind his bad actions cannot account for the effect of historicist narratives. What does?