Assigning Blame vs. Solving Problems

A while back, I came across a quiz question in a Judge Academy module. It asked "When a newer judge executes a task suboptimally that you assigned, who is responsible?" with the possible answers being "You", "The judge", "the judge's mentor", and "the tournament organizer".Conspicuously absent from the list was Judge Academy themselves. Apparently the idea that our certification organization might be partially responsible for a judge who lacks the skills they're supposed to be certified for was not even worthy of consideration. This question strikes me as completely missing the point.

When something bad happens at a tournament, our job is to fix it and make sure it doesn't happen again. Often this means asking ourselves "what could we have done better?" In this situation, all 4 of the people involved could have done something better. The judge could have been more prepared for the tournament, the Team Lead could have confirmed that they knew how to perform the task before assigning it to them, the judge's mentor could have taught them that skill in advance, and the tournament organizer could have done a better job of making sure the judges they hired had the necessary skills.

In any particular situation, the measure of control that each person can exert on the outcome differs, and the question "who made a mistake" may have a different answer. If the task was an atypical one that doesn't normally comes up at tournaments, then the judge's decision to not study up on that skill in advance was very reasonable, and blaming them for not having done so is pure outcome bias. If the tournament was hectic and all the team members inexperienced, the team lead may have not had a better option than sending that judge to try and do that task as well as they could. And if the event didn't get enough applications, the organizer may have had no choice but to hire some unqualified judges.

Any reasonable analysis of how to prevent this situation from happening again would rely on much more information about what happened than was given in the question. It would result in a fairly complicated model where different people bear different amounts of responsibility for what happened.It's also fully possible that the answer will be "no one". Black swan events just happen sometimes, and would be a mistake to attempt to plan ahead for all of them. For example, it's happened more than once that a Magicfest convention center lost power and the lights went out. Having a contingency plan for this would require significant costs to be imposed on judges and the organizer at every event, and the cost-benefit analysis shows that it's clearly not worth it on the whole. So we don't plan for it, and just deal with it as best we can when it happens.

Instead of teaching judges how to responsibly investigate the causes of the issue and address them, Judge Academy tells us to ignore the details of the situation and always pin the blame on specific people, regardless of their actual role in what happened.I'm using "blame", "fault", and "responsibility" mostly synonymously in this article, because that's how they tend to be used elsewhere. People do sometimes attempt to define meaningful differences between them, but equivocation between them is so common that I prefer to use completely different terms when a distinction is necessary.

When assigning blame is how you solve problems

We evolved to assign blame as a way to construct and maintain incentive systems.Whether this happened via biological evolution or cultural evolution is hotly contested, but that doesn't matter for our purposes. Humans don't want to be blamed for things, so the threat of incurring such blame can encourage them to behave in the desired way. Blame is a way for societies to designate a class of behaviors that will result in punishment.

Ideally we could always assign blame in proportion to the amount of agency that person had over the outcome, and the degree to which they could have foreseen it given the information they had at the time. But in complex systems, this is an intractable problem. It's therefore necessary to pick a small number of actors to blame for some failing, and ignore the other causes.

If a player casts a spell illegally, there are going to be many reasons this happened. Maybe their friend taught them the rules wrong. Maybe a spectator distracted them and they tapped the wrong lands. Maybe they have vision problems due to bad nutrition as a child. Maybe they were thinking about how they were going to handle their impending breakup. Trying to address all of those issues would not be feasible for the judge staff, so we tell players that "by joining this tournament, you agree to follow its rules and you agree that you will be the one held responsible if you fail to do so". This works because it provides an incentive for the player to handle all those second-order causes themselves, delegating the problem-solving to the person who's most able to solve those problems.

These sorts of considerations show up any time there's a need to punish or reward people. Is that criminal really the one responsible for the crime? Maybe they had a bad childhood and their parents are responsible. But aren't those parents also subject to outside forces? Maybe they grew up in a similar environment, and they were raising a child in the best way they knew how?

This is just as much of an issue with rewards. The Nobel prizes are often the source of controversy regarding who should have gotten the prize; collaborators sometimes get left out. But science is a communal effort, and in reality the discovery would not have been possible without the contributions of hundreds or thousands of other researchers, all the teachers who taught any of those people, all the people who funded the research, etc. The true casual chain for an event leads all the way back to the big bang, so one just has to choose a point at a sufficient level of abstraction to cut off the analysis.

So punishment and reward systems primarily exist to provide incentives towards the behavior we want to see. So whether it's the correct decision to punish the criminal or their parents depends on which one would result in the largest reduction in crime relative to the cost of the policy and other considerations.

When good instincts go rogue

So the human urge to blame exists for good reason. But as an evolved instinct, it's not capable of taking into account all the nuances of every situation.Ths is how we get schadenfreude; the desire to feel good about oneself by seeing other people "get what they deserve". This is, for example, what leads to calls for harsher and harsher punishment, even when it's been found that increasing punishment severity tends to not have a large impact on crime rates. Sometimes we let our feelings of anger or embarrassment drive our response too heavily, even when this doesn't provide other people with the incentives we'd want them to have.

In these situations, blaming people has in effect become a subgoal of its own. People start focusing on blame as an end in-and-of-itself, and forget about whether this is actually productive in that context. Whenever anything bad happens, we instinctively start looking for someone to pin it on. Stubbed my toe on a rock? It's the rock's fault.

A great example of how this can go wrong is the environmentalism movement. The best ways to prevent global warming are things like carbon taxes and carbon sequestration, subsidies for solar/wind/nuclear/hydroelectric power, etc. But large factions of the environmentalism movement oppose these sorts of policies, because they don't sufficiently punish fossil fuel companies. These sub-factions of environmentalism don't actually care about preventing climate change at all; rather, they care about inflicting suffering on the people they consider responsible for climate change, and in this case, those are two very different goals.

The cognitive machinery of instinctive blame assignation is opaque to us, and we can't trust it to always make good decisions. So if we want to accomplish our goals in life, we need to look for better ways to figure out when it is or isn't appropriate to assign blame. We can do that by considering the likely consequences of actions.

Choices have consequences

You're walking home one day and see someone get hit by a car. The driver speeds off, and the pedestrian is left bleeding on the pavement. If you chose to continue your walk home rather than call an ambulance, people would likely be angry with you. You were presented with a choice- save them or let them die, and you chose for them to die. Sure, the driver also chose for this to happen. So what? The existence of other people's choices doesn't mean you didn't have any choices yourself.

Most people understand this when it's presented in a relatively neutral and straightforward context like that. But once it becomes convenient to believe otherwise, people tend to lose this understanding. They come up with elaborate rationalizations as to why it's actually ok to take actions that have bad outcomes for others while benefitting themselves. "Well I didn't cause the original situation, so if I choose not to fix it that's ok." (In other words, "people are less likely to notice that I chose for the bad thing to continue happening".)

the actual trolley problem that determines almost everything about our society

— Chaos (@chaosprime) February 1, 2021

These sorts of blame-avoidance games are easy to fall into. We start thinking about the world wholly in terms of who will be blamed for bad things, and how we can avoid it being us or the people we like. Sometimes the best way to avoid being blamed for a bad thing is to prevent the bad thing from happening, and that's great. But often it's easier to simply let the bad thing happen and blame someone else for it instead. When everyone is trying this second strategy, solutions stagnate. People get into an arms race, investing more and more effort canceling out each other's attempts to blame them, and no one is trying to actually fix the underlying problem.

This can also lead us to be too eager to make sure the costs fall on the party at fault, even what that would have other bad outcomes. As part of the 5G rollout, it was discovered that commercial airplane electronics were operating outside their frequencyWell, sort of. See the comments on that post for details. and 5G would interfere with them. Grounding all commercial flights until their altimeters were fixed would be putting the costs on the guilty party, but would also result in millions of unhappy customers getting their flights cancelled. So they instead told the innocent 5G operators that they couldn't use 5G equipment near airports. Is this "fair"? Not really. But it was the best solution.Another example of this is bank bailouts. Yes, they reward the banks who made bad decisions, but when the alternative is a recession leaving millions of people unemployed, it seems like the better option.

Every once in a while when I'm out driving, someone seems to be driving too quickly towards me, and I'm worried they might hit me. My instinctive reaction is to keep driving normally, since if they hit me, it'll be their fault, and they'll have to face the consequences for their stupidity. Then the actually intelligent part of my brain wakes up and starts screaming WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU DOING YOU IDIOT‽ SWERVE OUT OF THE WAY SO YOU DON'T DIE.

Giving that first part of our brain too much control is what leads us to fall into the mindset of "I must take actions that avoid me being blamed for bad things" rather than "I must take actions that avoid bad things".I came across a particularly illustrative example of this during the early days of the Russia/Ukraine war. Many people were advocating for the US to institute a no-fly zone over Ukraine. One of the counterarguments proposed for this was that it would lead to a high chance of nuclear war between the US and Russia. Upon being confronted with this, some people decided that that was ok, because if Russia escalated the situation, that wouldn't be the United State's "responsibility".

In other words, people were advocating for taking an action that they believed would likely result in global nuclear war. Millions of deaths, billions more suffering, all justified with "it's fine because we can blame this on someone else".

Mistake avoidance

At a recent tournament, I made a mistake that was very out of character for me. Afterwards, I took a few minutes to sit down in the back and try to figure out why that had happened. Another judge who was in the area asked me what I was thinking about, so I told them. They responded by trying to comfort me, telling me that we all make mistakes and I shouldn't beat myself up over it. I explained that I know that, I wasn't beating myself up over it, I was trying to figure out why it had happened. But they seemed to have trouble understanding the difference; they continued to tell me that it wasn't a big deal and I shouldn't feel bad about it.

That judge was right that we shouldn't beat ourselves up over our mistakes; that's unhelpful and often counterproductive. But we most certainly should put some effort into investigating why that mistake occurredIf you don't have access to the L3 content, there's a non-paywalled alternative here. and how we can minimize the chance of it happening again. The idea that thinking about a mistake is the same as blaming yourself for it is an extremely harmful mindset, since it implies that you should just push mistakes out of your mind and justify this as a form of self care. This of course means that you're probably going to make that same mistake again in the future.

This sort of backwards reasoning also applies to our interactions with other people. If we get into the mindset of "informing people of a mistake is blaming them for it", that leads exactly where you'd expect: people not informing each other of mistakes, out of fear of being perceived as blaming them for it. This is an atmosphere that the judge program tries very hard to avoid; we can't improve if we don't learn about our mistakes. It's common for a judge to find out from a player that another judge made a mistake earlier in the tournament; when that happens, we need to be able to fix the problem, by letting that judge know what they did wrong and what the correct ruling would have been. If there's a stigma against brining up mistakes, that judge is going to continue issuing rulings, making the event worse for everyone.

The judge program goes to great lengths to avoid this atmosphere taking hold. We emphasize that making a single mistake is not going to get you decertified or blacklisted from staffing an event, because we understand that everyone makes mistakes, and it's important that we're able to talk about them without fear that they'll be used against us. One of the things I look for in an L2 candidate is what they do upon finding out about another judge's mistake. Do they actually take action to prevent that mistake from occurring in the future? That's what we want from the leaders in our community.


Someone walks home alone though a dark alley, and gets mugged. They go to the police station, and the police laugh at them and say "well, you really should know better than to walk alone in dark alleys". We'd consider this to be victim blaming, and bad behavior from the police. But why? After all, "don't walk alone in dark alleys" is pretty good advice.

No, the problem here is not the advice, but rather the lack of remedial action. The ideal response would be something like "ok, let's see what we can do about lowering the number of muggers in dark alleys. In the mean time, I'd recommend you stay out of those dark alleys, just until we can make them safer."

What we call "victim blaming" is the abdication of all responsibility onto the victim and the unwillingness to address the underlying issue. The victim is not at fault for the prevalence of muggers in the city and can't do anything about it, so blaming them for that is unproductive. But the victim does bear some responsibility for their own personal situation. If they continue to walk alone in dark alleys and get mugged over and over, we'd rightfully start to roll their eyes at their complaints.

It's one thing to wish that the world were a less a dangerous place and work towards that goal. It's another thing entirely to pretend that it isn't dangerous. Would it be great if we had safer cars? Absolutely! But if someone is driving recklessly and gets into a crash, we don't say "the world is at fault for not caring enough about road safety, and you are a victim of this apathy", we say "hey maybe you shouldn't have done that".

Pointing out that the victim had the ability to make a better choice is not victim-blaming. It becomes victim-blaming when the people assigning blame are doing so as a way to shift some of the blame away from themselves. Is it the manufacturer of a malfunctioning seat belt who's admonishing the driver for not having paid enough attention on the road? That's victim blaming.

Consider the difference between these three situations:

The first response attempts to dismiss the issue and put all the blame on the player, when it was really the judge who had the most control over the situation and should be changing their behavior.In order for floor judges to be useful, players need to be able to trust them. If every call gets appealed to the head judge, the floor judges aren't actually contributing anything to the event. The second response takes responsibility for judges doing something to fix the problem, but leaves the player helpless if a similar situation arises in the future. The third response makes it clear to the player that the appropriate people are going to try to fix the problem themselves, while also teaching the player how to better handle a judge error in the future.

Victim agency

The distinction here is between some nebulous concept of "blame" and that of agency. Does the victim have some measure of control over their situation? Do they have the ability to improve it? If so, refusing to help them see that is to choose for them to continue experiencing whatever bad things are happening to them.

Victims of serious abuse know that simply blaming the abuser for their situation is unhelpful; the abuser isn't going to change. If the victim wants their situation to improve, they need to take responsibility for improving it themselves.

When people fall into victim mentality, it removes their ability to reflect on their own actions. A spiral of self-destructive behavior can result, where they blame anyone but themselves for their situation, and are unable to see how they themselves are aNot the only! cause of their own suffering.I prefer it when a bad thing that happens to me is my fault, because that means I have the ability to do something about it. When it isn't my fault, I'm helpless.

As judges, it's often necessary to point out to victims that they have agency over their situation. Players will sometimes come up to us after their match, complaining that their opponent was cheating, or playing too slowly, or being rude, or any number of other things. Our response is always the same: "You should have called a judge when it happened."Phrased a bit more softly than that, of course. Is that player "to blame" for their opponent breaking the rules? Certainly not. But the fact is that we simply can't do anything about it if we only hear about it an hour later. That player was indeed a victim. They also had the ability to improve their situation, and didn't exercise it. The best thing that we can do for them is teach them how to avoid this problem the next time, by calling a judge right away.

I recently had a player, let's call them Alice, who was acting belligerent towards their opponent. A player in an adjacent match, Bob, suggested to Alice's opponent that they call a judge, which they promptly did. After I got there and started handling the situation, Bob continued to verbally engage with Alice, telling them they were going to get kicked out of the tournament for their behavior, and otherwise escalating the situation. This made my job much harder.

After the Alice situation was dealt with, I went and found Bob. I thanked them for their original suggestion to call a judge, and asked them to leave situations like that to us in the future, rather than further escalating the argument. Their response was to accuse me of victim-blaming, saying that they were defending Alice's opponent from Alice's inappropriate behavior, and they would absolutely do it again.

Bob thought (correctly) that Alice was behaving inappropriately, and thought (incorrectly) that Alice's poor behavior was sufficient justification for Bob to reciprocate with their own inappropriate behavior towards Alice. Seeing themselves as a victim had led to them excusing their own bad behavior, because "victims can do nothing wrong".

Setting aside the fact that the only real victim here was Alice's opponent, Bob misunderstood my communication as one pertaining to blame. I was not trying to pick people to blame for what happened; I was trying to solve the problem of heated arguments occurring in my tournament. Bob was someone with the ability to make decisions that could lead to a greater or lesser chance of such an argument occurring, and I was asking them to make the choice that would lead to a better outcome.

Understanding as endorsement

Our current society glorifies ignorance. Trying to learn more about something is seen as endorsement of it. People parade around claims of "I don't understand [thing]" as a badge of honor among people who hate [thing]. This leads to many problemsIf you don't even understand [thing], how on earth can you be confident that it's wrong?, but the one that's relevant here is that it's really hard to solve problems if you don't understand what's causing them in the first place.

I was once at a judge conference where a judge was asking for advice handling a player who wouldn't trust any of their rulingsMy memory of this is hazy and I couldn't find the chat logs, so some of these details may be incorrect.. Everyone else was providing suggestions like "take them aside and tell them sternly that their behavior is unacceptable", "give them a penalty for Unsporting Conduct", "threaten to remove them from the event", etc.

I asked why the player didn't trust them.

I was immediately pounced on for "blaming the judge for the player's bad behavior", told that my question was inappropriate, etc. Trying to understand the reasons for the player's behavior was interpreted as an endorsement of it.

That judge could of course just bring the hammer down on the player, feel good about themselves for inflicting harsh punishment on the "bad guy", and then forget about the issue. That might "fix" the problem on a superficial level, in that there is no longer a player arguing with the judge's rulings. But what are the other consequences of that? Maybe that player stops playing at that store, and the community loses someone who otherwise could have contributed positively. Maybe that judge gains a reputation for being harsh or abusing their position, and other players stop trusting them as a result. Maybe none of those happen, and it just further sours a relationship. Has the problematic behavior stopped? Yes. Has the problem actually been fixed? Not so much.

Compare this to what could happen if the judge tries to see where the player is coming from and address the underlying issue:

I attempted to talk about this on Facebook, and encountered an astounding amount of completely-missing-the-point. One judge responded "In every single one of your situations the player is behaving inappropriately." Another said "I think that regardless of the context, the truth remains that no judge should be automatically appealed." A third insisted "the player IS at fault, regardless of the context". One judge even thought I was arguing for downgrading the penalty.This ties in interestingly to fundamental attribution error. I think what's happening is that they only want to punish people for behaviors that come from some inherent personality disposition rather than transient external causes. They then assume that I feel the same way, and therefore me providing a potential external cause means I must want them to get a lesser punishment.

The urge to equate understanding with endorsement is really strong. Even when I was explicitly calling it out, people still couldn't understand the difference between the statements "this is why [thing] is happening" and "[thing] is not a problem".

Putting blame to good use

The concept of "blame" is a useful one, but frequently misused. Evolution has instilled in us strong emotional responses to anything going wrong, and those instincts can sometimes misfire. Rather than default to "PERSON WAS SUPERFICIALLY RELATED TO BAD THING! MUST BLAME, PUNISH, INFLICT SUFFERING!", consider what that's actually going to accomplish. Don't be the judge who enjoys giving out penalties or looks for excuses to do so.

Our first priority as a judge should always be to fix the problem, and blaming people for having caused it is usually not going to do that. Only after the problem is fixed do we start thinking about responsibility. We then want to assign responsibility not based on some emotional anger response, but based on what will create the best incentives to avoid this problem in the future.

When two players in a tournament have a miscommunication and have conflicting understandings of the game state, we usually try to figure out who made the better attempt to communicate clearly, and rule in their favor. Is this because poor communicators are inherently evil and must be made to suffer? No, it's because this provides an incentive for the players to communicate better in the future.

"Blame", "fault", and "responsible for" are frequently overloaded terms. When they come up, ask yourself what's actually meant. Don't confuse "has the ability to fix the problem" with "bears some mystical karmic burden for what happened". Distinguish concepts like "your job is to make sure [thing] gets done" from "you have the ability to improve the chances of [thing] getting done" from "if [thing] doesn't get done, people will be upset with you".

Internalize the difference between talking about who is in a position to fix a problem vs. blaming people for that problem. Understand that talking about something is not the same as condoning it or blaming someone for it.

Think about how systems usually apportion blame, what incentives that creates for each participant, and whether there could be a better division.

We issue penalties as a means to accomplish a goal. There is nothing good about the penalty itself.

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