McCanns, blame, and attribution theory

by John Jackson © 2010

I wrote this a couple of years ago after seeing so many vile and venomous attacks on the parents of Madeleine McCann on internet forums etc. (most of which were subsequently removed). My interest was with why people seemed to be completely transfixed with the parents' perceived characteristics, traits, motivations, and such like and how blame was apportioned to the parents with virtually no consideration of the situational factors that may have given rise to Madeleine's tragic disappearance.

The following piece was my attempt to gain an understanding of this phenomenon using attribution theory.

Attribution Theory

Attribution theory looks at how we assign causes to events and at how we apportion blame for outcomes to people.

There are two main factors in doing this:

  • External factors - These are situational events or outside causes for events such as a car breaking down making a person late for work.

  • Internal factors - These are the characteristics of the person that cause events such as a person’s laziness making them late for work.

How we do this can be illustrated be reading the following vignettes.

Example 1:

  • Sue is afraid of this dog;
  • Sue is afraid of most dogs;
  • Most people are not afraid of this dog.


  • Sue is afraid of this dog;
  • Sue is not afraid of most dogs;
  • Most people are afraid of this dog.

In the first vignette it is quite clear that the cause of Sue’s fear is due to internal factors. In other words, Sue is afraid of dogs. In the second vignette, it is quite clear that Sue’s fear is due to external factors. i.e. this is a frightening dog.

That is a clear example of how we explain the behaviour of others or attribute causes to events involving others. We, non-consciously, decide whether the cause of a behaviour/belief/action was due to internal (personal) factors or external (situational) factors.

So that’s all nice and clear and easy to understand. No problem! Only it’s not always as simple as that. Consider this example:

Example 2:

  • Sally is a quiet girl who likes reading and watching TV;
  • Sally dresses respectably and is self-conscious of her appearance;
  • Sally went out with some close friends for a chat and a glass of wine;
  • Sally wakes up the next morning and without any recollection of the night before and discovers she’s been drug-raped.


  • Sally is a party girl who loves drink and men;
  • Sally dresses provocatively and loves the attention she gets from it;
  • Sally went out with some mates to a party to get drunk and have a wild time;
  • Sally wakes up the next morning and without any recollection of the night before and discovers she’s been drug-raped.

So where do we attribute blame for this pair of events?

It seems quite easy and logical to externalise the cause in the first version; but the second version poses more of a problem. It looks like Sally’s behaviour (an internal cause) has somehow brought about the situation. She’s to blame because of her own actions. This is actually what a lot of people believe to be the case – you see it with rape cases etc. Did the girl ‘ask for it’?

The true answer, of course, is that it is the criminal who is to blame in both cases. Although the party-girl version of Sally may leave herself more open to this happening to her, fundamentally she is not to blame: the rapist is. This is something that is recognised in the criminal justice system these days. The perpetrator of the crime is the one to blame.

So why then do we have problems in attributing the correct cause of, or blame for, an event in some circumstances?

The Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE)

When we make judgements about ourselves compared to others we come to different conclusions – even when the situations are identical.

We have what is called a self-serving attribution bias. This manifests itself as us taking credit for any success we have but blaming other things for our failures. For example, a gambler who picks a winning horse will be pleased with his ability to assess the horse’s form, the going etc.; but a gambler who has exactly the same information but picks a losing horse will complain about the going not being reported accurately or that the jockey didn't whip hard enough, etc.

When things go wrong in situations, what’s going on with these attributions is:

  • We externalise the causes of events that happen to us. We tend to see ourselves as victims of circumstance; things beyond our control; and we are not to blame.
  • We internalise the causes of events that happen to other people. We tend to see others as making bad decisions; bringing things upon themselves; and being to blame for their own misfortune.

To illustrate the internal/external causation explanation, think about this:

  • You come home from shopping and you’re tired;
  • You plonk your handbag on the kitchen table and go to bed for a rest;
  • You get up later only to find that someone has forced the kitchen window and stolen your bag.

If this happened to you you’d have no hesitation in blaming the burglar: i.e. attributing the cause to an external event. You may (or may not having read this far!) be surprised to discover that when other people heard about it many of them would blame you for leaving your bag in view on the table. i.e. things happen to us - but others cause things to happen to them.

That’s a quick explanation of attribution theory: how it works and how it can cause false conclusions because of the FAE.

I think that the FAE is a major, but not the only, factor in people attributing blame to the parents in the Madeleine McCann case.* It is more similar in nature to the second example above (the party-girl Sally) in that the parents’ decision to leave their children unattended facilitated the crime by making it easier to commit; but, as always, the perpetrators of the crime had absolutely no right to do what they did and it is they who are to blame for it 100%.

Of course, we expect that parents have a duty of care to their children and leaving children unattended is neglecting that duty; but although this neglect will have facilitated this crime, it did not cause it. What it does, however, is make it easier for others to attribute an internal cause for the events that took place: i.e. the Fundamental Attribution Error.

Other factors include: empathising positively with Madeleine, empathising negatively with the parents, psychological projection (projecting one's own fears, unwanted thoughts or feelings onto others), victim blaming (it is a recognised phenomenon), and the Just World Hypothesis. All of which are worth looking at further.

* This is all assuming the abduction hypothesis - which is the only one that matters where blaming the parents because of leaving the children is concerned.