The Myth of Personal Responsibility

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Two chickens having a conversation.

Circumstances compelled me to use this image of two chickens having a conversation.

We are often exhorted to take personal responsibility for our lives. If you don’t like your job, instead of complaining about it just get a different one. If you’re fat, just eat less. If someone commits a crime, they should be in jail, because that’s the consequence. And it makes me wonder: why do we hear this so often; why has it become a mantra that you are in charge? And can each of us really be in charge of everything on our own, in a world of seven billion other humans, and very powerful companies and governments?

I’ll start with food. If you feel you’re not eating healthy, or if you’re a bit overweight, or maybe you’re pre-diabetic, the solutions are obvious. Eat less, right? Or eat better. Have smaller portion sizes. Have less sugar. Make meals at home from fresh ingredients. Those options are available, so you’ve only yourself to blame if you don’t do it. That’s what everybody will tell you, anyway.

But who is it that’s responsible for putting 32 servings into one bag of Doritos and calling it “family size”? (Any families out there with 32 members?) Is it me, the consumer, or is it PepsiCo, the international conglomerate with sales of $5 billion+ dollars per month? Sure, even without those gigantic bags, you could still have the same amount. you could buy 32 single serving bags and dump them all into your mouth, but that’s a lot less convenient. Who made the decision to make it more convenient to have an unhealthier diet, and did they make that decision for profit? And could they—with their teams of scientists—somehow not have known that a person is likely to eat more from a larger container, while feeling like they’re eating less?

We can only make decisions that are available to us, and in most cases we aren’t responsible for what those decisions are. So if a person in the United Kingdom decides they want to drink a bottle of Coke with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) instead of sugar, what do they do? You can’t go to the store and buy it, because it’s not sold. Someone in America has things the opposite way, and if you’re trying to cut down your HFCS consumption in America but you like Coke, things are suddenly more difficult for you through an accident of what country you happened to be born in.

I’ll stay on the subject of Coke for another paragraph or so. We all know it’s bad to litter. Most places have a pretty hefty fine for it. And anybody who litters is responsible for that decision, right? But who makes the disposable products that get turned into litter and damage our environment? In most cases, it’s a large company. Coke is sold mostly in plastic bottles, which are terrible for our planet. They used to sell it in glass bottles, which customers could return for a small refund, and the bottle could be re-used dozens of times. Glass is more expensive than plastic, and they figured they could make a little more money from the convenience of a plastic bottle, so they got rid of the refund programs and switched to plastic. Now, 70% of plastic bottles go un-recycled. And they’ll say that’s the fault of the consumer. How can Coca-Cola be blamed if somebody throws a Coke bottle on the ground? Of course, they’re the ones who got rid of the refund program and intentionally make a product that’s difficult to recycle and impossible to re-used, but does that matter? Are they responsible for their actions? The Coca-Cola Company isn’t a person, after all, they’re just the largest part of the industry group Keep America Beautiful, formed to place responsibility on consumers while at the same time neglecting their own responsibilities and making less re-usable products. But that’s probably just coincidence.

We can’t deny that people, on average, are getting fatter. But what’s the cause of that? Can it really be that people all over the world have somehow evolved to be consistently less responsible over the past few decades, and that somehow people have gotten less responsible (fat) to a greater degree in first world countries and other places that coincidentally have access to cheap processed carbohydrates, and that animals are also getting less personally responsible?

If the company I work for buys a robot that can do my job and then eliminates my job, leaving me unemployed, is that my fault, or is that the company’s fault? If I can’t find a job that makes use of my skills and since I’m unemployed I can’t re-train for new skills, who’s fault is that? Is it my fault for being unable to see decades into the future while I’m an inexperienced college kid planning the course of my career? Or is it the fault of society for not having a proper safety net that includes job re-training?

We certainly can’t let child molesters roam the street (Or maybe we’ll let them on one day of the year. It’ll be a fun holiday! Live a little.), right? And if somebody molests a child, that’s a decision they made, that they absolutely should not have made, and they need to be punished for it. That’s taking responsibility for your actions, and it’s only child molesters and Communists that try to get out of taking responsibility for your action. Oh, and children.

But what causes someone to become a child abuser? I’m not an expert, so I can’t answer that. However, I can answer that someone who is sexually abused as a child is more likely to become a child abuser as an adult (1 in 10). If you add violence to the abuse, they’re then three times more likely (3 in 10). I suppose one theory might be that people who sexually abuse children today are just particularly attracted to children that in the future are more likely to abuse children that don’t even exist yet. I just thought of a better idea, actually: maybe it’s that the things that happen to us in our lives shape our minds, and our actions and decisions are direct products of our minds and our environments, and if you fill a child’s mind with anger and shame and pain, maybe that is still going to be there when they’re an adult, and to blame someone for their actions when it was something that happened decades before which made them susceptible to it is just further cruelty. You know, maybe.

Anyone who’s ever visited a public urinal knows that they’re for men to pee near, but not in. Men are filthy beasts, I would never do that, etc. etc. Perhaps it’s because in public urinals, you know it’s not going to be you or your spouse cleaning up, so you take less personal responsibility. But at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, they found an 80% increase in men peeing in the urinal (and a commensurate decrease in cleaning costs) when they put a fly design inside their urinals. It has nothing to do with what those men decided to do—the decision was already made for them, by the manufacturer of the urinal, and magically men now took more personal responsibility for where they peed.

Many people in America who get married choose to have a diamond engagement ring. On average, they choose to spend $4,000 on one. It’s a lot of money, and it’s their choice. But do they also choose the history of the diamond engagement ring? In fact, the De Beers diamond company manufactured their choice through decades of advertisement, and prior to that, diamonds were not especially common as an engagement ring.

People get into debt, and we see it as a character flaw if somebody is not able to manage their money. But who stands to profit from somebody having a bad time with money? The credit card companies, for one, which constantly push their cards at anybody legally old enough to have one, and the worse you do, the more money they make through your interest payments and other fees. You’re always encouraged to pay by credit card for things you can’t afford, even though it means you’ll pay more than if you waited a bit and saved. Companies know that paying for something in the far off future is much easier than paying for something right now, so to get you to buy something they’ll offer “no payments for 12 months” or something. Of course, it’s the same whether you pay it now or in 12 months, but they take advantage of the fact that humans are naturally poor at envisioning themselves in the future, and make it so that you’re not making a proper decision.

I don’t mean to say that we have no responsibility for anything (although we probably don’t), and there’s a lot of value to be gained by, for example, taking stock of your flaws and making efforts to improve them. But we should also look at how the deck is stacked against individuals. There are enormously wealthy and powerful organizations which are doing their best every day to get you to make decisions that are not in your best interest. In all of these cases, the companies involved will say that it’s not up to them, that they only provide what the consumer wants. They neglect to mention that they often manufacture those wants with advertisement, and take advantage of flaws in human psychology and physiology. When marketing budgets for single large corporations go into the hundreds of millions, and when they have hundreds of scientists working on breaking down your defenses, one person’s “personal responsibility” is almost nothing. To resolve the enormous problems that face us, we have to fully realize that decisions are not made in a vacuum, and that one person’s decision is influenced by many things outside of their control, but not outside of the control of society as a whole.


5 thoughts on “The Myth of Personal Responsibility

  1. Bob Bobson

    This article/blog post is the reason in a nutshell that some people never will succeed, no matter what the goal is. Money management, weight loss, etc etc. The whole point of personal responsibility is to stop making excuses. But oh wait, of course I can’t make my own decisions, I wasn’t taught that growing up. I wasn’t ever told that that was bad. I wasn’t…therefor I cannot.

    Now that you know the reasoning behind a family size bag of chips (profit and getting you to buy more), doesn’t that knowledge factor into your future decision to eat half of the bag? You can’t say you didn’t know anymore.

    My point is that regardless of what you were or were not taught in the past, as soon as you gain insight or knowledge, you are now personally responsible for you actions. Everyone knows (or is taught at a young age) that it is wrong to litter. It is NOT Coke’s fault that you MADE THE DECISION to throw the bottle on the ground. Maybe it would happen less if you got a nickel for turning in a glass bottle. Maybe not. The point is that you knew it was wrong, and yet you did it anyway. Stop making excuses and blaming someone else or some other entity/company/whatever.

    We live in time period in the US, and most of Europe, where we have free access (library) to more information than any person in the history of humanity. Ignorance is no longer an excuse. Yes, you have to make the decision to go and look up how to cross train into a new job, or what research says is the best way to lose weight. But everyone can do it. You telling them it’s ok that they did not or don’t have to is just perpetuating the problem.

    P.S. Mental disorders should be left out of this topic in my opinion because they are something that we actually cannot control (at least on our own).

    1. darkgreenskies

      You forgot to read the part towards the end of the article where he acknowledges the importance of personal responsibility. The point isn’t that personal responsibility does not exist but rather people tend to overly rely on fundamental attribution errors to criticize problems without considering the wide spectrum. The all too common sanctimonious response you presented just further fuels this article. Plus, just because someone gives an opposite angle of an argument by playing devil’s advocate, in this case, considering the alternative factors of personal responsibility, doesn’t necessarily imply the person’s circumstances of successes or goals in life, as long as their civilized with their stance. Even if that person wasn’t a typical success story, doesn’t mean that all their points would automatically be invalid.

    2. cubeangel

      Bob, I do have Aspergers disorder and I’m glad you acknowledge that mental disorders should be left out b/c these are something we can’t control at least on our own.

      Now, with this being said, I disagree with at least some of what you say.

      You say “we live in a time period in the US and most of Europe where we have free access (library) to more information…”

      1. Ok, but what sort of information do we have access to? Is all the information on there going to be accurate or truthful or is there a lot of misinformation out there?

      2. If I know that I don’t know something then I can look it up. If I do not know that I don’t know something and that information is vital I can’t look up what I would never look up what would not even cross my mind.

      3. What if there was no information out there on something but it comes out later but the consequences for one’s ignorance of this information makes it to late to act? How does personal responsibility come into place? How was his circumstances based upon the decisions in this particular case? People smoked and we as a society a while back didn’t understand how bad it was for you and the tobacco industry tried to hide it at first. Where does personal responsibility come into play here?

      “It is NOT Coke’s fault that you MADE THE DECISION to throw the bottle on the ground.”

      Of course it was that person who made the decision. Yes, it was that person. Yes, that person should be fined. But I think what he is saying is why does he get the whole responsibility pie? If he is expected to help keep our planet green and beautiful by not littering shouldn’t the coca-cola be responsible for what they make and put out into the ground or air? Shouldn’t their be regulations placed upon them just like regulations are placed upon me to keep the Earth clean and beautiful?

    3. DaRick


      Yes, adults are responsible for their actions.

      The thing you miss, however, is that while people have (a priori) free will and unparalleled access to information compared to their forebears, people’s choices are in practice influenced by the environment around them from a very young age. That is why people raised in ghettos are more likely to become dysfunctional in later life. They see their elders and peers committing antisocial acts and come to think that’s the normal, acceptable way of doing things.

      Another thing you miss is that while we have unparalleled access to information, much of that information is actually downright wrong, and the vast majority of people lack the time and ability to shift through the information to determine what is correct and what isn’t. For example, RE diet, the American FDA and Australian government both recommend eating a lot of refined carbs (grains) and relatively few fats/proteins/fruits. Unfortunately, this advice is most likely wrong because refined carbs stimulate your appetite much more than fats/proteins/fruits do. Following that dietary advice will therefore cause you to gain weight.

      I find it interesting that you exclude mental illness when you discuss personal responsibility. Are you suggesting that people should take personal responsibility…until they can’t or don’t?

      1. DaRick


        Your second point refers to ‘bounded rationality’ – in other words, our ability to make decisions is based on the information that we can reasonably access at any given time.

        So it is possible that, even if we make a wrong, ‘personally irresponsible’ decision, that our capacity to make a better one was questionable. Even doing nothing may not have been the better choice.


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