The Biological Reasons You Like Taking Credit When Things Go Well

Ever heard the expression “Victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan”? Well, more is going on than people retroactively ducking responsibility when there’s blame to go around. In fact, people feel a greater connection to good outcomes than bad outcomes.

A new study (pdf alert) published in Currently Biology demonstrates that people really experience less personal responsibility for a voluntary action when the outcome is negative, and we feel more when the outcome is positive, even if we had nothing to do with the outcome at all.

Researchers arranged an experiment where subjects would press a key. Then, they’d play negative sounds of fear, positive ones of achievement or amusement, or neutral ones. Importantly, there was a lag of a few seconds after the key was pressed. Subjects were asked to estimate the time elapsed from their pressing the key and the sound being played.

It turns out that individuals perceive a much longer time lapse when researchers played a negative sound, and a much shorter one when there was a positive one. Researchers say that there’s a greater sense of agency over the positive outcome, even though subjects didn’t have any real agency at all.

Photo courtesy of West Annex News

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