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Your fault or mine? The psychology of blame

Imagine this situation: You are driving down a very narrow road and you accidentally clipped the wing mirror of a parked car. There was no damage to either car, so no harm done, but how would you react? Are you likely to blame yourself for not paying enough attention or for being too risky? Or would it be the fault of the person who parked the car, obviously too far out from the kerb!

Whether you tend to blame yourself or someone else for things that happen to you, most people will tend to be quite consistent in this behaviour. In 1966 a psychologist called Julian Rotter developed the locus of control scale. Locus of control refers to the beliefs that people have about why things happen to them.

There are two locus of control “personality” types: internal and external. Someone with an internal locus of control believes that they are responsible for their own actions and that they can control things that happen to them. So they would have believed that clipping someone’s wing mirror was their fault. Someone with an external locus of control believes that other people, or perhaps fate, determine the things that happen to them. So they would have blamed the person who parked the car rather than themselves.

The locus of control theory has been highly influential in psychology and has been applied to many different areas of research, including driving research. Özkan and Lajunen[i] developed the multidimensional traffic locus of control scale (T-LOC). The T-LOC is a questionnaire which presents sixteen potential causes for an incident to occur. For each cause the participant has to rate how likely it is that an collision that they were involved in could have been caused in that way.

They found that the T-LOC identified four different aspects of locus of control with regards to driving. One factor reflects the traditional internal locus of control where a driver is most likely to blame themselves for an accident. The other three dimensions were of different aspects of the external locus of control: other drivers, vehicle/environment and fate.

In addition to developing the T-LOC, Özkan and Lajunen also examined how the four different factors might be associated with risky driving behaviour. The “self”, or internal, T-LOC scale was the aspect most highly correlated with risky driving behaviour predicting the number of collisions, offenses and violations that a person committed. Someone who blames themselves is likely to drive in a riskier way. The external scale of “vehicle and environment” was also predictive of committing offenses and errors with those who blame the vehicle and environment being less likely to participate in risky driving. “Blaming other drivers” was only predictive of errors and “fate” did not predict any of the risky driving behaviours.

The same research group more recently looked at whether the T-LOC can predict whether people speed or not[ii]. When driving on a road with a 50 km/h speed limit none of the T-LOC scales were predictive of driving behaviour. However, relationships were found when people were driving on a road with a 90 km/h speed limit. People who are likely to blame their own driving behaviour for crashes were more likely to speed whereas those who tend to blame the vehicle and the environment were less likely to speed.

In many respects, locus of control is quite similar to a personality trait. This means that it is unlikely that you can simply “change” your locus of control type in order for you to reduce possible risky driving behaviours. An awareness of whether you tend to have an internal or an external locus of control may help you to better understand you own driving behaviours, especially if you are involved in a collision.

[i]Özkan and Lajunen (2005)

[ii]Warner et al (2010)

Dr Victoria Bourne (BA Hons, DPhil)

Consultant to Driving Risk Management Limited

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