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The Deeper Meaning Of Blame Vs. Punishment In The Brain

at-the-ruin-1431549C. R. writes: A recent study from Vanderbilt University seems to show that blame and punishment are decided by two different parts of the brain:

Juries in criminal cases typically decide if someone is guilty, then a judge determines a suitable level of punishment. New research confirms that these two separate assessments of guilt and punishment — though related — are calculated in different parts of the brain. In fact, researchers have found that they can disrupt and change one decision without affecting the other.

—Vanderbilt University. “How your brain decides blame and punishment, and how it can be changed.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 September 2015.

This is both fascinating and timely!

Ten Important Days

In a recent Therapy Soup post, we shared seven emotional insights borrowed from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a powerful two-day spiritual observance which just ended last night.

The two-day holiday began a period of what is known as the “Ten Days of Return”. During this period, leading up to perhaps the most famous Jewish fast day, Yom Kippur*or the Day of Atonement, we engage in both self-reflection and outreach.

Although ideally we take time each day of the year to assess ourselves, identifying  our good points, and both strong and weaker areas in which we could possibly grow and improve ourselves, this particular ten-day period is especially slated for this activity. We take our spiritual-ethical-moral temperature, so to speak, and see if we’re getting a “healthy” reading.

We also take the time to outreach others, improving our relationships with them by, first and foremost, seeking forgiveness of those we’ve harmed, hurt, or otherwise caused pain to. We check in with them, as well as in with our own feelings about others, asking some important relationship-related questions:

Do we feel anger or resentment towards others? Who and why and what can we do about healing these feelings?

Are we able to try and heal relationships, even with people who’ve harmed us (when possible)?

Have we been less-than-kind to someone, perhaps insulted or slighted them?

Have we shown proper respect and gratitude to people who’ve helped us (and to people in general), or have we judged them negatively the one time they’ve let us down, forgetting the big picture?

Have we deceived or manipulated others?

Have we been honest with ourselves?

Of course there are many more questions, many related to spiritual values, but overall, we try and repair what we’re able to.

So What Does This Have To Do With Blame & Punishment?

In the study:

“…researchers at Vanderbilt University and Harvard University confirm that a specific area of the brain, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, is crucial to punishment decisions. Researchers predicted and found that by altering brain activity in this brain area, they could change how subjects punished hypothetical defendants without changing the amount of blame placed on the defendants.”

In other words, punishment is decided by a different part of the brain than determining blame.

Now, suppose we start by taking the term “blame” and reframing it. Let’s call it “responsibility.”

Now, let’s take the term “punishment” and call it “consequences.”

If a person is responsible for a crime, as discussed in the study, we can acknowledge his responsibility (blame) for the crime, but we do not have to let vindictiveness, anger, resentment, or on the other hand, unbridled pity or sympathy dictate the consequences (punishment.)

We are actually capable of determining if someone is morally responsible for an act while not having this affect our decision about the consequences we want to see occur.

What does this say about the process of self-reflection, relationship outreach/healing, and atonement?

I was really excited to think that this shows we can actually train ourselves to accept that someone has dissed us, hurt our feelings, and so on, but not want to see them face painful consequences.

Or, that we or someone else has done something at a moment in time that is less than helpful, but we can put this in perspective, and not wish for unwarranted punishment, harm, or consequences.

Now, I’m not talking about the moral/ethical measurement of consequences; just the fact that we have the ability to see blame yet not wish for harm in return.

Can we do this for ourselves, too, and not just others?

More soon…


Earlier posts on the incredible power of Yom Kippur:

The 5-Step Forgiveness Formula To Help You Heal Your Relationships

Jewish Guilt Debunked

10 Beliefs About Anger

The Deeper Meaning Of Blame Vs. Punishment In The Brain

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2015). The Deeper Meaning Of Blame Vs. Punishment In The Brain. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 23, 2020, from


Last updated: 17 Sep 2015
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