The right ‘dose’ of responsibility
Being responsible and accountable are qualities that we teach and nurture in our children. A responsible person is a great employee, highly valued by managers and colleagues. Friends and family are likely to seek reliable individuals who are responsible. One might think that there are no reasons to suspect that responsibility is not a great psychological trait. And yet studies show that one of the driving forces behind Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an inflated sense of responsibility.
If responsibility is good and bad at the same time, what is the right ‘dose’ that will ensure emotional well-being?
Responsibility is defined as duty to perform a task satisfactorily; the ability to be trusted to do the right thing or the things that are required. These notes are concerned with one’s tendencies to take upon themselves less or more responsibility.
The concept of the “age of accountability” has a biblical origin in that children are not held accountable by God for their sins until they reach a certain age. Thirteen is the most common age suggested. The age of accountability is the belief that God saves all those who die never having possessed the ability to make a decision for or against Christ. One dimension of responsibility is the ability to make decisions for and against an action and be accountable for this decision to an authority. And this capacity increases with age. That’s why children are not held responsible and any harm that occurs to them. This falls into the responsibility of their care givers.
If we take a closer look at how society deals with responsibility, the age of majority - which transforms a child legally into an adult - has traditionally been the age of 18. There is a trend to standardise the minimum age of criminal responsibility somewhere in the mid teens (13-15). Legally to be guilty of a crime it is not enough to have committed a forbidden act, but there must be the requisite mens rea (guilty mind) as well as actus reus (wrongful/guilty act). From this perspective, the two dimensions of responsibility are a guilty mind and wrongful act with intent.
Under a magnifying glass responsibility consists of the following dimensions:
- Ability to make informed decision for or against an action; having knowledge of consequences; an ability to differentiate between right and wrong; and a presence of moral standards.
- Wrongful act with intent.
To be feeling guilty, one needs to differentiate between right and wrong. Guilt is a feeling associated with thoughts of breaking own personal rules, whether moral rules or rules of conduct.
It is important to note that children subjected to physical abuse or bullying and/or sexual abuse tend to attribute responsibility to themselves for not being able to stop or prevent the abuse. Failing to take action has the same responsibility value as performing a wrongful act. And with the additional benefit of the insight they are likely to judge their own ‘failure to act’ and feel guilty.
At the other pole, individuals high in psychopathy lack sense of guilt or remorse for harm they may have caused others. Instead, they rationalise their behaviour, or blame someone else.
Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky focuses on the intention to kill and the acting on his plan of Raskolnikov, an ex student. Raskolnikov argues that with the victim's money he can perform good deeds to counterbalance the crime, taking responsibility for the misfortunes of others. He also commits this murder to test his own hypothesis that some people are naturally capable of such things, and even have the right to do them. Raskolnikov justifies his actions by believing that murder is permissible in pursuit of a higher purpose. Crime and Punishment is literally translated as a stepping across (crossing over a barrier or a boundary). The fact that his crime is not accompanied by guilt and remorse, but with preoccupation of not being found out brings the character closer to psycho-pathology.
Psychological theories of moral development and the ability to differentiate between right and wrong asserts that moral values arise primarily through punishing of bad behaviour and rewarding of good behaviour. This is most notable by the child’s environment. We are not born with responsibility beliefs; we learn them through our early life experiences.
Raskolnikov himself was persistently exposed to misfortunes of others and it can be hypothesised that such experiences would have made him vulnerable to misplacement of responsibility: taking responsibility where responsibility did not belong to him and not taking responsibility where responsibility did belong to him. Although legally responsible for committing the crime, there were many factors to have influenced his actions - his psychological state, his physical state, responsibility beliefs, childhood experiences, isolation, society, family and friends.
My clinical experience is that people who take extra responsibility in some domains of their lives tend to avoid taking responsibility in other domains. Unfortunately often this felt sense is accompanied by resentment towards others who would not match the same level of responsibility and mistrust, which interferes with ability to validate or invalidate own beliefs and negotiate boundaries in relationships.
It has been suggested that there are multiple pathways through which a person is likely to learn to become responsible and these include an early sense of responsibility that is encouraged in childhood. Therefore there is no surprise that an older sibling who has been given responsibility in looking out for his/her younger siblings is likely to have an inflated sense of responsibility in preventing bad things from happening.
Often responsibility is associated in environments in which emphasis is placed upon duty and rigid codes of conduct (educational and religious instructions). Here moral codes of conduct may increase the likelihood of one deriving their self-worth from achievements and high standards. Likewise children who are protected from responsibility are likely to struggle with the responsibility of the adult life. Often, an incident of a serious nature that may have contributed to the misfortunes of oneself or others attracts beliefs of responsibility. Thought action fusion - wishing that bad things do not happen coinciding with the non occurrence of a harmful event - could teach children that they have power to influence courses of actions. This combined with a sense of irresponsibility from both or one parent could lead to the child holding more responsibility that they could actually mange.
In order to re-script beliefs of responsibility, the CBT model uses a framework of thinking in terms of responsibility re-allocation or re-assignment, in that a responsibility pie chart is drew and slices of responsibility re-allocated to various influencing factors.
In questioning and challenging responsibility, the following examples are helpful to increase awareness of responsibility bias. A toddler can not be held responsible for causing harm to himself by touching a hot iron as you would expect a 17year-old to be. If someone leaves a piece of wood with needles sticking out of it on the floor, who would be held responsible? The person who put it there in the first place, the person who saw it but did not pick it up or the person who stepped on it? When responsibility is to be shared, people will be allocating different slices in the responsibility pie chart depending on their own responsibility beliefs.
This is where some of us fall short. Responsibility bias refers to beliefs that any personal influence over negative outcomes is equivalent to being completely responsible. Whereas most individuals believe that failing to act in certain situations reduces their responsibility for negative outcomes, people with OCD do not subscribe to this belief.
The moral of these notes is that for most matters in our life, responsibility is part of our own automatic psychological functioning. The problem arises when we attribute ourselves more responsibility than we really have or when we take no responsibility at all. The way forward would be bringing the processing of responsibility to the front of our awareness and breaking through the automaticity of it. We need to question responsibility assignment and ongoing negotiation of responsibility with ourselves and others - from child care arrangements, house chores, working patterns, work assignments to one’s or others’ safety and well-being.
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