Fear of responsibility and its causes

Fear of responsibility is an irrational fear of taking responsibilities. Also called hypengyophobia (Greek ‘hypengos’ means ‘responsibility’), people who have a fear of responsibility avoids responsibilities, even at a significant cost to themselves and others.

Such people are trapped in their comfort zones and avoid taking risks that most responsibilities entail.

People can fear taking responsibility for themselves and others in different life areas. First and foremost, they might avoid taking responsibility for their own life and actions.

Of course, those who can’t take responsibility for their own life and actions won’t take responsibility for their actions that impact others.

People who fear taking responsibility have an external locus of control- they believe external events determine their life to a greater extent than their own actions. They undermine their own ability to affect their life through their own actions.

While it’s true that what happens to us shapes our life, it’s also true that our own actions can have an enormous impact on our lives. A balanced and realistic individual gives importance to their own actions as well as external events. They don’t undermine the power of either.

What causes fear of responsibility?

A person who avoids taking responsibility doesn’t have enough proof that they can take responsibility. They lack the belief that they can take responsibility or believe that taking responsibility leads to negative outcomes.

Following are the reasons behind fearing responsibility:

1. Lack of experience in taking responsibility

Experiences are one of the most powerful shapers of beliefs. A person who fears and avoids responsibility may simply not have enough ‘reserve’ of past life experiences that tell them they’re good at taking responsibility.

We do more of what we’ve already done. When we’ve already done something, it gives us the confidence to approach future challenges and responsibilities.

For example, a student who has never taken any leadership role in life before might be reluctant to take the position of being a class representative.

People have different levels of confidence in different life areas that can make them fear responsibility in some areas, but not in others. But it all boils down to having a good reserve of successful past life experiences.

Eventually, success in one life area generates confidence that can spill over to other life areas.

2. Experience in taking responsibility and failing

Having taken responsibility in the past and failed is worse than not having taken any responsibility at all. The former generates a greater degree of fear than the latter because the person is actively trying to avoid something.

Taking responsibility and failing teaches you that taking responsibility is a bad thing. People can usually handle the negative outcomes of taking responsibility if they have to bear all the costs. What people can’t seem to handle is letting others down.

So, if you took responsibility in the past and let important people in your life down, then the fear of responsibility might haunt you for your entire life.

3. Perfectionism and the fear of making mistakes

Often, when you’re given a chance to take responsibility, you’re given an opportunity to move out of your comfort zone- which is uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable because you worry if you’ll carry out the responsibility perfectly and avoid making mistakes.

Knowing that perfectionism is an impossible goal and making mistakes is okay- as long as they’re not big blunders- can help in overcoming these fears.

4. Low tolerance of negative emotions

A huge responsibility often brings along with it huge anxiety and worry. This goes back to being out of your comfort zone. When you step outside of your comfort zone, you’re definitely going to feel a lot of anxiety, stress, and worry.

If you have a low tolerance for these emotions or can’t manage them, you’ll crumble under the responsibility. It’s much easier to live in the shell of your comfortable emotions than to experience the roller-coaster of emotions that come with taking responsibility and growing.

5. Fear of looking bad

No human being wants to look bad in front of other human beings. Taking up an enormous responsibility and failing could mean coming across as incompetent and letting others down.

When you take responsibility, you’re saying, “I’m going to make this happen. You can count on me”. This is a high risk/high reward/high loss position to be in. If you succeed, people will look up to you as their leader (high reward). If you fail, they’ll look down on you (high loss).

Taking responsibility is a risk

There’s an inherent risk in taking responsibility. Bigger the responsibility, bigger is the risk. Therefore, you need to weigh the pros and cons before taking up a huge responsibility.

Is taking the risk worth the reward you might gain? Or is the potential loss far more than you can handle?

When people take responsibility, they claim they’ll be direct agents in achieving an outcome. They claim they’ll cause the outcome.

Direct agents reap the greatest reward if a venture is successful and bear the most brunt if it’s unsuccessful. Thus, people claim to be direct agents if a venture succeeds and indirect agents if it fails.

Being an indirect agent simply means you didn’t have direct involvement in causing an outcome- other factors are to be blamed.

People try to minimize the costs of failure by becoming indirect agents. They share the costs of failure with others or blame chance to make themselves look less bad.

fear of responsibility and agency

There are two instances when people are expected to take responsibility:

1. Before making a decision and taking action

Before people take up a responsibility, they weigh the potential costs and benefits of making the decision. If they take up full responsibility, they accept the role of direct agents in causing the outcome.

If they don’t take up full responsibility, they’re leaving things to chance or to others. In other words, they’re shifting responsibility from themselves.

For example, when candidates are asked, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” in job interviews, they’re expected to give a concrete response or they risk coming across as irresponsible.

If they reply, “Who knows? We’ll see what life has to offer”, they’re avoiding responsibility for their future.

“What life has to offer” communicates that external events play a causal role in determining their outcomes, not themselves. This is an example of uncertainty-seeking behavior. If the future is uncertain, chance is to blame for whatever happens.1

If you try to bring some certainty into your future by being a direct agent, you’ll have to be responsible for it. But you don’t want the responsibility for your future on your head because you don’t want to fail. Hence, blaming chance is a way to avoid failure, self-blame, and potential loss.2

Research shows that if people anticipate they’re going to regret their decisions, they try to avoid or delay deciding, hoping to avoid responsibility.3

2. After making a decision and taking action

If you accepted the role of the direct causal agent in bringing forth the outcome, you’ll get all the credit if you succeed. If you fail, you get fully blamed for failure. This is why, when they fail, people lean on secondary agents to minimize the costs of failure and diffuse responsibility.4

Some of the most heinous crimes in history were committed when people diffused or shifted responsibility like this.

For example, an individual may never commit a crime, but when they’re part of a mob, responsibility gets diffused among the mob members. The result being that each member has less responsibility than they would have had if they had committed the crime individually.

Dictators often commit crimes through other people. They can blame their underlings for the crime because the latter are the ones who actually did it, and the underlings can always say the orders came from above.

The goal should be taking realistic responsibility for your actions. If you know you were fully responsible for an outcome, accept full responsibility. If you had no part, don’t accept any responsibility. If you only had a small part, accept responsibility in proportion to the part you played in causing the outcome.

Accusing you of fearing responsibility

There’s a subtle yet important difference between not wanting to take responsibility and being afraid to take responsibility. The former involves rational cost-benefit analysis that leads you to conclude that the risk isn’t worthwhile and the latter involves irrationality.

If you don’t want to do something, people might accuse you of fearing responsibility. It can be a manipulative tactic to get you to do things you don’t want to do.

Nobody wants to be seen as irresponsible. So when we’re accused of fearing responsibility, we’re likely to bend to the pressure of wanting to appear responsible.

People can throw their accusations and opinions at you but, ultimately, you should be self-aware enough to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Or what you’re not doing and why you’re not doing it.

References

  1. Leonhardt, J. M., Keller, L. R., & Pechmann, C. (2011). Avoiding the risk of responsibility by seeking uncertainty: Responsibility aversion and preference for indirect agency when choosing for others. Journal of Consumer Psychology21(4), 405-413.
  2. Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1992). Advances in prospect theory: Cumulative representation of uncertainty. Journal of Risk and uncertainty5(4), 297-323.
  3. Anderson, C. J. (2003). The psychology of doing nothing: forms of decision avoidance result from reason and emotion. Psychological bulletin129(1), 139.
  4. Paharia, N., Kassam, K. S., Greene, J. D., & Bazerman, M. H. (2009). Dirty work, clean hands: The moral psychology of indirect agency. Organizational behavior and human decision processes109(2), 134-141.