The next time someone declines to take responsibility for words or actions that had a bad impact, don’t immediately assume it’s a flaw in their character. Maybe it’s just their protective brain doing its job.
We flip a light switch and the light turns on or off. We experience agency in that moment — the sense that our own voluntary action produced an effect.
We also experience our action and the effect as closely related in time; in the case of the light switch, nearly simultaneous.
But when the result of our actions is negative, we perceive a longer time lag between what we did and what happened. And that slight lag seems to lower our sense of agency. In other words, we may truly experience less responsibility when the impact of our action is negative.
Researchers at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London wondered whether our perception of time (and therefore agency) might depend on the emotional outcome of an action. They tested this idea by having research participants press a key, which resulted in one of three outcomes: Negative sounds of fear or disgust, positive sounds of achievement or amusement, or neutral sounds. All of the sounds happened at the same speed and lag time from the button press.
Participants were then asked to estimate when they acted and when they heard the sound. And you guessed it: When the key press resulted in negative sounds, participants sensed a longer time lag between their action and the result. Said researcher Patrick Haggard,
Our result suggests that people may really experience less responsibility for negative than for positive outcomes. This is not merely a retrospective justification about how well we have done: The actual experience that we have changes, even in basic aspects like its timing.
From an evolutionary biology point of view, this may stem from the primal roots of defensiveness and serve as our brain’s attempt to shield us from something that could get us kicked out of the tribe. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my.
Of course we still, as Haggard points out, “have to take responsibility for what we actually do, not just for how we experience things.” Benign intentions don’t cancel bad impact.
This study is yet another reason the diagnostic, “let’s fix them” approach to conflict resolution is so misguided. Better to focus on the equal human in front of us.