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Author Topic: A Theory of the Pattern of Blame -- Bill Eddy, LSW, JD  (Read 665 times)
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« on: February 21, 2015, 10:31:12 PM »

A Theory of the Pattern of Blame

By Bill Eddy, LSW, Esq.


Mental health researchers have studied cognitive distortions for many years. Common cognitive distortions that appear in high conflict cases include:

  • All or Nothing Thinking

  • Emotional Reasoning

  • Minimizing the Positive

  • Maximizing the Negative

  • Overgeneralization

  • Personalization

  • Projection

Since the cognitive distortions of those with personality disorders generally cause them to interpret events as all external, they desperately seek something or someone else to blame. It is a psychological process of diverting attention from one’s own unacceptable behavior onto the behavior of another. It appears to be a sincere, but misplaced, effort to change the cause of their distress and problems.

Persuasive Blamers

Not all of those with Cluster B personality disorders or traits appear to be Persuasive Blamers. Some of those in therapy are willing to look somewhat at their own behavior and are less likely to focus blame on others. Some in this Cluster are also unpersuasive with their dramatic emotions and cognitive distortions. However, some of those with Cluster B personality disorders or traits become High Conflict Personalities because of their Cluster B characteristics – high intensity emotions, personalization, projection, and so forth. There appears to be a consistent pattern of those with these High Conflict Personalities (“HCPs”) when they engage in legal disputes.

Targets of Blame

In most high conflict cases, the Target of Blame is someone with whom the HCP has or had a close relationship. This is often a spouse, former spouse, neighbor, coworker, business partner, or professional – especially one with whom the HCP had an emotionally close relationship. Any of these persons can become Targets of Blame because of some misunderstanding – such as a phone call that was not returned – which triggered rejection feelings which “deserved” an attack.

The HCP’s cognitive distortions lead them to believe the Target of Blame is capable of the behavior of a monster – because of the monstrous bad feelings of being rejected, or some other distortion. In some cases, the HCP knows that the allegations are not true, but feels driven to make them by his cognitive distortions. “She was always an unfit mother and the children don’t feel safe with her,” he says, after she spent 5 years as the primary parent without incident. He feels he has to dominate her and the children to feel in control in the divorce. These are the extremes of behavior that fit the extremes of emotions the HCP feels.

Negative Advocates

While the average person spends some of their emotional energy on reflection and self-change, HCPs appear to put all of their emotions into attacking their Target – to try to get them to change, to stop doing something, to compensate them for their troubles, or simply to divert attention from their own bad behavior. Not surprisingly, Targets don’t respond positively to these emotional demands. Therefore, the HCP starts pursuing others to help blame the Target. Essentially, they are seeking family, friends, and/or professionals who will help advocate for their cognitive distortions. In order to be totally blameless, they must get Advocates to agree that there is a Target who is totally blameworthy.

When potential Advocates don’t believe the HCP (which is very common initially), then the HCP escalates her emotions even more, and comes up with ever more dramatic allegations against her Target. She might become more manipulative, or she might give up and look elsewhere for another Advocate. The goal of releasing their internal distress gives HCPs enormous energy with which to engage in an ever-escalating, high conflict dispute.

While most potential Advocates may feel empathy for the emotional distress expressed by the HCP, they are not persuaded by the real facts of the dispute. It will take more persuasive facts to win them over. Thus, those with High Conflict Personalities begin to generate distorted information that fits how they feel. Their feelings create their facts.

Emotional Facts

Much of today’s legal disputes are driven by Emotional Facts – emotionally-generated false information accepted as true and appearing to require emergency legal action.

If persuaded of the Emotional Facts against the Target, the Advocate will feel a sense of urgency and feel compelled to do things on behalf of the HCP. The Advocate will persuade new Advocates. They will persuade each other. Advocates will start generating new Emotional Facts themselves, and the case will escalate, much like rumors that demand urgent action.

Of course, the Target generally has two choices: Give in to the mounting attack – which many victims do – or fight back and also obtain Advocates. Interestingly, many Targets are not HCPs themselves and do not have practical experience at the adversarial approach to problem-solving. They are not by nature highly persuasive. They generally are trusting – sometimes over-trusting – of others, and therefore believe that others will see the truth without the need for persuasion. The Target may decide to involve a dispute resolver – mediator, lawyer, court – or may decide to wait and see if the HCP calms down or goes away.

Persuading Dispute Resolvers

Inevitably, many HCP disputes escalate to involve court. This can be either because the HCP brings the case to court as a plaintiff or the Target takes the HCP to court as a defendant.

Some high conflict disputes resolve in mediation, if the mediator is able to handle the mediation in a way that satisfies the High Conflict Personality. This may involve some emotional or financial concessions that are acceptable to the Target. However, the HCP may be unwilling to negotiate meaningfully regardless of what the mediator does.

In court cases, those with personality disorders or traits start out very convincingly about their cognitive distortions. They are usually much more aggressive than their Targets. They know right away that this is an adversarial process. Some Targets are shocked by the emotional intensity and Emotional Facts generated by their former spouse, partner, or family member. They didn’t know this adversarial side of the HCP because they were previously in a collaborative relationship. Other Targets know exactly what to expect because of previous blaming.

Targets are generally at a disadvantage in court. They trust the court to be a finder of fact; they know the facts are in their favor, so they are confident they will prevail. They start out trying not to escalate the dispute, and generally take a problem-solving and settlement-oriented approach. They behave respectfully in court and defer to the all-knowing authorities.

The court system – an adversarial system – has many procedures that control the information presented. In many cases, this works very well. However, in the case of High Conflict Personalities, the process may be easily manipulated if the professionals and decision-makers are not aware of cognitive distortions and emotional persuasion.


Because the thought structure of HCPs and the adversarial court process are such a perfect fit, HCPs are often effective at making innocent people look “guilty,” while at the same time they are skilled at looking “innocent” themselves. With their desperate charm and aggressive drive, they often succeed.

For decades, social scientists have studied two basic paths to persuasion, called the central route of persuasion and the peripheral route of persuasion. (Lewicki, 1994, pp. 205-215, citing research of Chaiken, 1987, and Petty and Cacioppo, 1986) Each route affects our processing of information and judgment in a different manner.

PERIPHERAL ROUTE OF PERSUASION: (Generally outside of conscious awareness)

  • Attractiveness of the messenger

  • Aggressiveness of the messenger

  • Confidence displayed

  • Number of arguments made

  • Language intensity

  • Shorter sentences and simpler messages

  • Use of distractions

  • Relationship to the listener

  • Social role and group identification

  • Emotional appeal

CENTRAL ROUTE OF PERSUASION: (Generally a Conscious Process)

  • Facts

  • Ideas

  • Reasoning

Interestingly, those with personality disorders or maladaptive personality traits tend to be those who rely more heavily on peripheral persuasion in daily life. This often becomes their primary problem-solving method, as they attempt to influence others to take action for them. Those with personality disorders often have a loose grip on the facts, so they rely more easily on emotions to persuade people. Unfortunately, many Persuasive Blamers have developed highly effective skills of short-term emotional persuasion, including charm, heightened emotions, and the ability to persuade others that they are victims – even when they are the perpetrators.

In court – especially with interpersonal disputes – the factual information is often skimpy and directly in conflict. The primary source of evidence is what each party says about the other: “He said, she said.” Important information may be excluded by legal objections, and the decision-makers usually do not see the parties interact – the most useful information about interpersonal disputes, aggressive behavior, and personalities.

There are significant rewards for winning in court (getting money, staying out of jail). Consequences for lying are rare. Persuading the court to adopt one’s own point of view (no matter how distorted it may be) becomes the primary goal. In the absence or conflict of factual information, the peripheral route can dominate decision-making.

A more emotionally aggressive party (or his or her attorney) may be more successful in capturing the attention and sympathies of the judge and jury. The first side to cry victim may be able to trigger suspicion and anger toward the other side. A more emotionally reasonable or passive party (many a true victim) can appear less persuasive – even though more truthful and flexible in out-of-court problem-solving. Ironically, studies show that courts are more accurate when considering written information and documents only – screening out visual and verbal peripheral distractions. (Reike & Stutman, p. 125)


Most high conflict cases are not resolved until the Central Route of factual information finally prevails over the Peripheral Route of emotions and dramatics. Because of court procedures, this often takes quite a long time. Of course, many high conflict cases simply end when the Targets give up and decide to do something else with their lives. For the High Conflict Personality, dramatic interpersonal conflict is his life, so giving up is much less likely.

HCPs in court cases present a triple threat: Cognitive Distortions plus an emphasis on Peripheral Persuasion plus court limitations on Central Route persuasion.

When High Conflict Personalities Go to Court:

  • Significant Cognitive Distortions

  • Emphasis on Peripheral Route Persuasion

  • Limitations on Evidence/Central Route Persuasion

  • High

Conflict Litigation

The resulting escalation of emotions and legal activity can involve many others, and a great deal of time and money. Without understanding High Conflict Personalities and their Enduring Pattern of Blame, there can be ever-escalating costs as their disputes escalate into high conflict. However, with some basic understanding, empathy, and the application of certain skills, High Conflict Personalities can be identified, their energies redirected, and their disputes resolved.

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