Credit and Blame

Credit and Blame

Credit and Blame

Credit and Blame


In his eye-opening book Why?, world-renowned social scientist Charles Tilly exposed some startling truths about the excuses people make and the reasons they give. Now he's back with further explorations into the complexities of human relationships, this time examining what's really going on when we assign credit or cast blame.

Everybody does it, but few understand the hidden motivations behind it. With his customary wit and dazzling insight, Tilly takes a lively and thought-provoking look at the ways people fault and applaud each other and themselves. The stories he gathers in Credit and Blame range from the everyday to the altogether unexpected, from the revealingly personal to the insightfully humorous--whether it's the gushing acceptance speech of an Academy Award winner or testimony before a congressional panel, accusations hurled in a lover's quarrel or those traded by nations in a post-9/11 crisis, or a job promotion or the Nobel Prize. Drawing examples from literature, history, pop culture, and much more, Tilly argues that people seek not only understanding through credit and blame, but also justice. The punishment must fit the crime, accomplishments should be rewarded, and the guilty parties must always get their just deserts.

Brilliantly conceived and masterfully written, Credit and Blame is a book that revolutionizes our understanding of the compliments we pay and the accusations we make.


We humans spend our lives blaming, taking credit, and (often more reluctantly) giving credit to other people. Viable visions of life can include varying proportions of credit and blame, but none of us escapes the urge to assign value— positive or negative—to other people's actions, as well as our own. That is so, I speculate, because evolution has organized our brains to create accounts of actions and interactions in which X does Y to Z. X causes Y to happen, and Z bears the consequences. We don't simply observe X-Y-Z sequences dispassionately, as if we were watching how falling raindrops form a puddle on a windowsill. Instead, we assign moral weight to those sequences, deciding many times each day (usually without much reflection) whether we or someone else did the right thing. What's more, we want doing the right thing to receive rewards and doing the wrong thing to receive punishments. This book focuses on how we humans relate just rewards and punishments to other people's actions, and to our own.

Over a half century of research, writing, and teaching, most of my professional work has concerned large-scale political processes such as revolutions, social movements, and transformations of states. Anyone who has studied these sorts of processes—or, for that matter, takes part in them—sees credit and blame everywhere. Political leaders (often unjustly) take credit for their regimes' accomplishments, blame . . .

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