Carnegie Mellon Research Shows People Blame
External Agents When Bad Things Happen to Them
PITTSBURGH—Ask most Boston Red Sox fans about "The Curse of the Bambino" and they'll quickly tell you it was responsible for the team's 86-year world championship drought from 1918, when the team traded Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, to 2004. But ask them about the good fortunes brought about by the ghost of Ted Williams and most will probably think it has something to do with cryonics. Those predictable responses are in accord with new research by Carnegie Mellon University's Carey K. Morewedge that reveals people attribute external agents — other people or supernatural forces — when something goes wrong, but not when things happen the way they wanted or expected.
"No one credits the ghost of Ted Williams for Boston's 2004 and 2007 World Series victories," said Morewedge, an assistant professor of social and decision sciences in Carnegie Mellon's College of Humanities and Social Sciences. "They attribute those victories to the talent and skills of the ballplayers."
Morewedge's research, published in this month's Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, suggests that people tend to attribute negative events to external agents because they are naturally motivated to believe outcomes were due to someone's intentions rather than pure chance, and only take credit for their positive outcomes. "Pointing a finger at someone or a thing gives people a satisfactory explanation for an event, and blaming a negative event on someone else is more satisfactory than blaming yourself." he said. "This is important for understanding why people are so prone to blame other political, social, ethnic or religious groups for their misfortune.
"If an important file is deleted or their favorite team loses a game, people seem prone to believe that their computer is out to get them, that the referees were conspiring against their team, or that their team has been cursed. It is easier and more satisfying to think that we caught the swine flu, lost our savings or didn't get a promotion because another person was conspiring against us than to see those events as random or due to our own actions. But when files are easily found or their favorite team wins, people rarely attribute those events to such external influences," Morewedge said.
Three sets of experiments tested whether people were more likely to attribute negative events to external agents than positive or neutral events. Morewedge also examined whether the difference was due to a general negativity bias or because people are less likely to expect negative events. For example, during a gambling game, participants won and lost money. Morewedge analyzed when the participants believed that the gambling outcomes were due to chance or another person. The results showed that they were more likely to believe that another person caused a monetary loss than a win — regardless if they expected to win or lose.
The research was funded by a dissertation grant from the Institute for Quantitative Research in the Social Sciences at Harvard University.
Pictured above is Carey Morewedge, an assistant professor of social and decision sciences.