Blame: The fastest human reflex

Blame is so much part of our daily lives, we don’t realise its enormity nor its impact. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (30 August 2014), identifies blame as the fastest human reflex, now surpassing instinctive responses such as blinking and flinching.

“Our research shows that assigning fault to another person for a negative or unintended outcome is now the human body’s quickest involuntary action.” Dr. John Wittsack

So why do we blame?

As human beings, we like things to run smoothly. We set a standard for ourselves and constantly aim to achieve that standard. For example, we aim to be on time for work, appointments, functions, or for those with a baby, aiming for the baby to sleep through the night. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to feel and be perceived as though we are on top of our game.

When we achieve our personal standards, it makes us feel good. There’s a sense of pride in nailing our goals. When everything is going right, we are in cruise control – the comfort zone.

On the flipside however, when things don’t go as planned, it feels as though we’ve hit a bump in the road. We may feel uneasy, and experience a sense of discomfort. Frustration builds up. We don’t want it to reflect badly on us. There’s an urgency to repair the damage and we go into fix it mode. The quickest way we can solve the problem is to blame someone else. You see, blame is a process of self-protection and self-preservation.

So that we are not exposed, or held accountable for the problem, we cling on to the comfort zone. To remain in the comfort zone, we shield ourselves by repelling the reality and handing the cause over to someone else.


Blame is so common that Dr. John Wittsack believes that accepting responsibility had degenerated into a purely vestigial reflex and would eventually exit the human race altogether. SCARY!

In a recent Pilates session, I witnessed the transfer and impact of blame.  It was a small group, myself and two others.  One participant, in her senior years was struggling to do some of the exercises.  The instructor responded immediately to the participant and was assisting her by providing alternative options to each exercise.  The participants’ frustration became obvious, with a few sighs here and there.  Half way through the session, the participant grabbed her personal items, and with her head down, exclaimed “I can’t do this”, then left the room.  The instructor excused herself from the room to see if the participant was ok.  A minute later, the instructor returned to the room in a discombobulated state, and said, “apparently it was me – I laughed at her”.  The instructor then burst into tears.  We were perplexed by the accusation, there was absolutely no sign of inappropriate behaviour from the instructor.   This possibly was a case of self-preservation for the upset participant. A way of rationalising the situation and solving the problem by transferring the cause onto someone else. The impact of that transfer of blame was immediate, the instructor was quite destressed and become the pain-gainer, questioning every comment she had made in the session.

Humans fear being vulnerable, exposed, criticised, that we build a strong wall to protect us from being hurt.  Rather than having the finger pointed at us, we deflect the blame by rotating the finger and pointing it at somebody else. In many cases we are oblivious to the impact that it has on the pain-gainers.

Blame is not productive.  Blame disguises and conceals.  Blame alienates and separates. Blame is the killer of community, cooperation and collaboration.
— Peter Rouse