06/28/2010 06:34 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

BP and the Blame Game

British Petroleum has become an enemy I love to hate. The face of Tony Hayward provides a focus for my outrage as the media shows oil soaked birds struggling to fly and people along the coast weeping in desperation, as I contemplate years of conservation efforts undone and black goo oozing toward places I cherish.

It is one of the ironies of human nature that I can feel this outrage as I ride in a car or sit in comfort on a transatlantic flight.

Our brains are built for causal analysis. When things go wrong, we instinctively ask why -- we look for something or someone to blame. That's good. Seeking explanations is part of intelligence; it allows us to survive and thrive, to avoid harm and pursue goals. But our ability to allocate blame is fundamentally flawed.

For one thing, we have a strong tendency to simplify the story line. Layers of causality are often less interesting to us than a narrative about a few bad actors. I am reminded of how much the left loved to hate George Bush -- to revel in his personal flaws, to analyze specific mistakes. This obscured the real problem with his administration: it was operating off of a fundamentally flawed set of hypotheses about how to make America stronger and improve the lives of her citizens. The model for international security was the renegade gunslinger in white who comes into town and cleans the place up. The model for domestic prosperity was a fairy tale free market that somehow produces the best of all possible worlds. Bush-hating drowned out real public dialogue about why these models were at odds with complicated realities. Hayward-hating drowns out another complicated reality.

Is Hayward a rich whiner? Did he reverse BP's focus on alternative energy? Has his company lobbied long and hard against safety measures and regulations? Were they particularly negligent? Did they blithely gamble something that belongs to all of humanity and to other life lovers who live or swim in the seas? Yes. But each of us who drives or rides at some level asked them to do so. Hayward may have been brought in by shareholders who wanted to maximize profits, but we consumers are the ones asking for cheap plentiful gas at the pump. In the absence of incentives or regulations to the contrary, the free market optimizes financial returns for shareholders and cheap supplies for consumers. That's us.

Right now I am on Santorini Island in the Aegean, on a vacation en route home from travels in developing countries. The island is a favorite of vacationing Americans because of its traditional white houses carved into the cliff sides, beautiful beaches and bounty of fresh seafood. A ferryboat brought my family here, billowing out trails of black smoke into an environment that was otherwise all blue -- sky and sea. A straining bus hauled us up the switchbacks from the dock. We arrived at a small, family-owned hotel in which our light bulbs and kettle are powered by diesel. The water we drink is shipped in, packaged in plastic. The water we bathe in is desalinated (using fossil fuel for energy) and then pumped into a truck that delivers it to the hotel cistern. If anyone is culpable in the Gulf disaster, I am.

Our dollars are a way of voting. We rank our priorities and spend accordingly. Every day we vote for Exxon and Shell and BP to do what they do: bring us fuel. Like the guy who hires a hit man, we mostly don't want to know the dirty details of how they do it. Like the heroin addict, we may even hate the drug but can't quite figure out how to stop without our lives crashing down around us. Like the other critters with whom we share this planet, we are driven first and foremost by creature comforts: full bellies and social relationships, bodies that are just the right amount of warm or cool -- the ordinary pleasures of day to day living. We are motivated to get all of this with the least possible effort. Petroleum helps us in this quest.

How hypocritical it is to stand on the righteous side of the divide and judge British Petroleum. How very natural, though. Psychologists who study the way we allocate blame and credit long ago discovered a phenomenon known as the "fundamental attribution error" by which we look at the wrongdoing of others and place a disproportionate emphasis on character qualities rather than situational factors: "The oil spill happened because Hayward is a greedy jerk"; not "The oil spill happened because our whole economic system has been pushing toward this point." There's another attribution error, known as "actor-observer bias" which largely exempts us from blame. When the focus is on our own behavior what stands out in our minds is situational factors. We are demanding oil because of the job market, time constraints, the structure of our cities, the structure of our children's lives ...

I am not saying we should exempt BP or Hayward. In the interest of profit, they violated even normal industry standards of caution. They gambled and lost, and they should face the consequences. But neither should we exempt ourselves for our role in the tragedy. To do so is to squander one of life's most precious offerings -- the chance for introspection and growth.

Our righteous indignation, our anger at Hayward, says that BP struck not only oil -- they struck something that we care about deeply. Those feelings of outrage, of repulsion, of pain and frustration are powerful motivators for change -- as long as they are not divorced from our own sphere of influence. Anyone who has spent time in psychotherapy learns that eventually the effective question -- even for victims of abuse -- isn't "who is to blame?" but "what is my role here? What power do I have to affect this situation? How can I change myself to make things better? How can I draw more of what I want from other people -- people I lead, people I serve, people I love?"

Outrage that isn't channeled ultimately into these questions is opportunity lost.