No One Is To Blame For Misbehaviour

Variability in people leads to variability in the anticipated behaviour. In this context there is always a degree of unpredictability in behaviour.

In Michael Crichton’s novel Rising Sun, the character John Connor makes the observation:

The Japanese have a saying: ‘Fix the problem, not the blame.’ Find out what’s screwed up and fix it.  Nobody gets blamed.  We’re always after who screwed up.  Their way is better.

While it is likely this proverb is as much a product of the author’s imagination as the fictional Nakamoto Corporation around which the novel pivots, it doesn’t detract from it being apposite when looking at how organisations and individuals address agency when something goes wrong. The challenge for leaders, in an Org Behaviour setting, is that the simple mantra of ‘fix the problem, not the blame’ runs the risk of becoming lost in a world which has become enthralled to the behaviourism of B. F. Skinner which teaches that because of environmental conditioning, no one is to blame for misbehaviour. But if Skinner is right, how do we develop a sense of personal responsibility?

I am tempted to simply quote a passage from George Herbert Mead by way of response and leave it at that:

The self is essentially a social process going on with these two distinguishable phases (the ‘I’ and ‘Me’). If it did not have these two phases there could not be conscious responsibility, and there would be nothing novel in experience.

However, as an exercise I am going try to answer as Skinner, or rather, as a version of Skinner who accepts the notion of personal responsibility. Something which I would argue Skinner could, and should, have done because behaviourism doesn’t necessarily deny personal responsibility. On the contrary, personal responsibility requires a level of predictability, not the opposite which seems to have been Skinner’s understanding. As a result, behaviourism contains all the necessary elements for personal responsibility.

When what a person does is attributed to what is going on inside him, investigation is brought to an end. Why explain the explanation? For twenty-five hundred years people have been preoccupied with feelings and mental life, but only recently has any interest been shown in a more precise analysis of the role of the environment. Ignorance of that role led in the first place to mental fictions, and it has been perpetuated by the explanatory practices to which they gave rise.

In this context behaviourism deals with, what J. M. Ziman called ‘third-party-confirmable’ or ‘public knowledge’ concepts. Personal responsibility, often regarded as private and not subject to public knowledge, must be brought into a social or publicly confirmable space before it can be analysed. In this way personal responsibility can often occupy a metaphorical space. Metaphorical in the sense it is generally referring to egotistic, ‘I am doing this for me’, or altruistic, ‘I am doing this for someone else’. Once unpacked, this allows for the possibility that responsibility and determinism are not mutually exclusive but in fact synonymous. To clarify this thinking, I first need to scrape away commonly extant notions of determinism.


The traditional argument runs along the lines that an individual’s behaviour is caused by their history and they cannot be entirely accountable for their actions. This casts responsibility for actions outside the locus of personal control and is evident in the mitigation used by defence litigators. One of the more notorious examples of the avoidance of personal responsibility can be seen in the Menendez case in which it was argued the murder of their parents, by the Menendez brothers, was the result of a history of child abuse and that the routine beating of a child can excuse murder of the adult.

Here I would argue, contrary to Wordsworth, the child is not father to the man. The ramifications of the Menendez case are important as they cast the concept of personal responsibility as some sort of throwback to a less scientific age in which people lacked the knowledge to understand how human actions are motivated, however this atavistic view of responsibility does not withstand scrutiny. Instead, and although I abhor generalities, I would argue we are not much wiser, perhaps even a little less wise, than the ancients when it comes to understanding human behaviour and that advances in psychology are much akin to Penelope’s weaving of Laertes’ funeral shroud, several developments which are then unpicked.

The upshot of this tramping of ideas, back and forth along the path between automatism and personal responsibility, is to leave a very muddy track in which the individual isn’t held responsible as they have no free will with which to exercise their responsibility. To understand this thinking it is necessary to assess two divergent meanings of ‘free will’, which are alternately subjective and objective. The latter is governed by concepts of control and the predictability of choice — in this understanding ‘predictable’ is used in the sense of a body moving between three linear points. It follows, as an A B C, that the path could not have been other than it was, that it was predictable or, in the parlance of behaviourism, ‘determined’. The subjective notion of free will relates to how a person feels or thinks. I think I am free, no matter how predictable my behaviour may be.

There is an endless regress within the subjective form of free will as it can be argued we are not aware our awareness is determined making our feeling of freedom invalid. However, to avoid reductio absurdum I am assuming the capacity to be aware when our awareness is determined and when it is free.

This is evident in my ability to choose how I will achieve a goal, even if the goal itself is not a free choice. An example is I find it difficult not to like chocolate, but I am free to choose if I will eat Lindt or Cadbury chocolate because while my reinforcers predispose me to choose Lindt, sometimes I will choose Cadbury’s Old Gold instead. By contrast, a behaviourist society has no interest in subjective feeling and with it rejects out of hand any notion of free will. As Skinner noted:

In the traditional view, a person is free. He is autonomous in the sense that his behavior is uncaused. He can therefore be held responsible for what he does and justly punished if he offends. That view, together with its associated practices, must be re-examined when a scientific analysis reveals unsuspected controlling relations between behaviour and environment.

But if an individual does not have free will and if they, by extension, cannot be held accountable for their actions, how can they develop a sense of responsibility for their actions?

Sense of Responsibility

The answer can be found in Skinners own assertion there are ‘unsuspected controlling relations between behaviour and environment’. While this may at first seem a paradox, it becomes less so once it is remembered Skinner’s use of the word ‘control’ can be misleading as in the common tongue it carries unduly forceful connotations. Rather, it is better to understand the term control in the context that the effects of contingencies are governed by the ability of an individual to adapt to the contingent element of ‘control’. If a person cannot adapt to rewards or punishments they would exhibit completely ‘uncaused’ actions. Such utterly random acts would make a person unaccountable as their responses would be unrelated reinforcement. But this is not the case with the development of human behaviour, as Daniel Dennett notes:

The blind trial and error of Darwinian selection creates organisms whose blind trial and error behaviour is subjected to selection by reinforcement, creating ‘learned’ behaviors that generate a profusion of learning opportunities from which the most telling can be ‘blindly’ but reliably selected, creating a better-focused capacity to generate further candidates for not-so-blind ‘consideration,’ and the eventual selection or choice or decision of a course of action ‘based on’ those considerations. Eventually, the overpowering ‘illusion’ is created that the system is actually responding directly to meanings. It becomes a more and more reliable mimic of the prefect semantic engine (the entity that hears Reason’s voice directly), because it was designed to be capable of improving itself in this regard; it was designed to be indefinitely self-redesigning [my emphasis].

In this way, it is better to understand ‘control’ as meaning ‘predict’, as my predilection for chocolate predicts I will respond favourably if the reward of chocolate is offered, but it does not control, in the sense of removing all responsibility; my decision to accept or reject the offer. This ties any notion of an individual’s capacity to respond appropriately to reward or punishment with responsibility and creates the first bind between the ‘control’ of behaviour and individual responsibility. This is an important note as there is a tendency, in an age dominated by physics which has brought Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle into popular discussion, to assume because the idea of perfect predictability is incorrect in physics it is also wrong in the field of human behaviour.

It is important to grasp something of a paradox. Due to the variability in people as to their sensitivity to rewards or punishments, there is a variability in the expected behaviour. In this context there is always a degree of unpredictability in behaviour.

Having established a sine qua non, we are able to examine the social aspects of personal responsibility in the behaviourist framework.


In 1842, Daniel M’Naghten killed the secretary to Sir Robert Peel (Prime Minister of the United Kingdom 1841–1846), even though Peel had been M’Naghten’s intended victim. In mitigation during the trial, M’Naghten offered his mission was guided by the ‘voice of God’. This trial brought into effect the M’Naghten rule which stipulates insanity is proven if the defendant ‘was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.’ However, to simply establish if the person knows something is wrong, in the case of criminality, is not the whole story viz our discussion of individual responsibility. To firmly place responsibility for an action, a social component is needed. Take the example of a dog peeing on the rug.

Punishing the animal may, in time, correct the behaviour, but it in no way could be said that to train one dog not to pee on the rug creates a collective understanding in the canine community that to pee on the rug is wrong and that if any other dogs engage in the act of urination, while inside on the rug, they are responsible for their behaviour because of the first dog’s learning curve. Contrast this with an adult human being who, through social interaction, can learn murder is wrong and may be deterred from ever committing the act because of the prospect of punishment. In this context, the adult has a personal notion of deterrence, fear of imprisonment, garnered from the societal example of prior murderers being imprisoned. A lunatic or an animal lacks this capacity to learn from the social correction of others and in consequence has no ‘personal responsibility’ for their actions. A ‘functioning’ human adult can learn and has both the personal and social aspects of learned behaviour, which leads to personal, as well as societal, notions of responsibility.

Throughout this article I have argued the notion of responsibility fits within the behaviouristic framework because actions, which are ‘third-party-confirmable’, denote responsibility, not thoughts which are only privately knowable, and because an important aspect of responsibility requires some element of determinism; predictable responses to reinforcement contingencies and an ability to learn by instruction and example. The claim behaviourism denies notions of responsibility is false, because although behaviourism affirms the role of environmental conditions, this same process creates the framework of responsibility as an individual responds to rewards and punishments and people around him may learn by social example; through signals such as language and observation. It is at this nexus of the twin elements of conditioning, social (external) and individual (internal), that personal responsibility is to be found. A ‘normal’ adult possesses a capacity to learn from both external and internal contingencies; many animals or people of diminished responsibility only have an individual capacity to respond; some organisms or disturbed humans lack either ability.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

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