ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2022, Vol. 30 ›› Issue (6): 1327-1335.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2022.01327

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Psychological needs of responsibility attribution and response strategies in public emergencies

XIE Xiaona, ZHANG Yue, GUO Yongyu()   

  1. School of Psychology, Nanjing Normal University, Nanjing 210097, China
  • Received:2021-04-29 Online:2022-06-15 Published:2022-04-26
  • Contact: GUO Yongyu


After an emergency occurs, inferring the cause of the incident and attributing responsibility is an essential characteristic of people’s psychological activities. Attribution of responsibility in emergencies refers to the public's cognitive tendency and attitude toward the inference of the cause of the incident. Further, it includes the assessment of the responsibility of the subject involved in the process of occurrence and handling. In adverse events, people have stronger motivations for attributing responsibility. It is a protection mechanism for individuals to find fault or accord blame for unfortunate events. This leads us to believe that disasters can be avoided if individuals or groups can determine the relationship between events and control the situation. Therefore, individuals need responsibility attribution after emergencies. The purpose and psychological significance of responsibility attribution are to meet the need to alleviate the sense of uncertainty and maintain a sense of control.
The sense of uncertainty due to emergencies results in a need to explain exigencies in achieving cognitive closure. Through attribution of responsibility, people can obtain explanations regarding emergencies that occur, making such situations predictable. Conversely, the pursuit of certainty may lead to the public believing in conspiracy theories of adverse events. Responsibility attribution can also be used as a way to meet the needs of the people's order to compensate for the lack of sense of control. Simultaneously, the accountability or punishment of the offending party can make people feel controllable.
Meeting people’s psychological needs depends on the strategies adopted by the responsible subject in dealing with the attribution of people’s responsibilities. These strategies can be divided into negative coping strategies that violate psychological needs and positive coping strategies that meet people’s psychological needs. For example, organizations to which fault is attributable may adopt negative, responsibility-avoidance behaviors to maintain a positive image and project moral values, which makes it more difficult for the public to get a clear picture of the incident. This further aggravates the public’s sense of uncertainty, and causes other negative effects. The situational crisis communication theory proposed by Coombs considers various crises. It provides targeted suggestions for coping strategies, but the approach pays less attention to the psychological needs of the public in the attribution of responsibility. Starting from the people’s psychological needs, we have proposed two principles for coping with responsibility attribution: 1) ensuring complete transparency of information to alleviate people’s sense of uncertainty, and 2) ensuring reasonable and orderly actions to increase people’s sense of control. Finally, we further provided suggestions for response strategies at different stages of the incident. In the initial stage, it is necessary to provide timely guidance information to establish security. In the mid-term, a reasonable explanation of the causality of the event should be provided to alleviate the sense of uncertainty. Further, the structure and order of various measures should be ensured to compensate for the sense of control. Later, detailed information needs to be released, including instructions and suggestions for future preventive measures, to achieve cognitive closure.
We also discuss future research in this area. First, we can supplement the integrated empirical evidence on the relationship between psychological needs and accountability in emergencies. Second, we distinguish the characteristics of the public’s responsibility attribution and active response strategies in different types of emergencies. Third, we focus on the connection between responsibility attribution and other social-psychological variables. Finally, we explore practical strategies for the government in responding to the attribution of public responsibility based on Chinese society.

Key words: attribution of responsibility, psychological need, personal control, uncertainty, response strategies

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