Accountability Definition

Accountability is the condition of having to answer, explain, or justify one’s actions or beliefs to another. It often includes the possibility that you will be held responsible and punished if your acts cannot be justified, or rewarded if your actions are justified. Accountability is a composite of numerous factors: being held responsible for one’s actions, presence of another, being identifiable as an actor, evaluation by an audience, and providing validation for one’s behavior.

History and Modern Usage of Accountability

AccountabilityThe most salient component of accountability, the idea that we are responsible for our actions, is central to a long-standing debate among philosophers and psychologists: that of determinism versus free will. Determinism suggests that people act based on cause-and-effect relationships and therefore could not have acted any differently than what they actually did, whereas theories of free will suggest that people act of their own volition. Proponents of free will admit that genetics and environment influence decisions; nevertheless, decisions ultimately depend on individual choice. The distinction between the two perspectives lies in the degree of accountability to which people are held. Determinism does not give people the power of choice and therefore denies accountability. Supporters of free will, however, hold people accountable for their behavior in that people ultimately have some choice in what they do.

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Many current psychological perspectives follow a deterministic line of thinking. Behavioral psychology explains all of human behavior as a response to expected consequences of environmental stimuli. Neuroscience examines human behavior from the perspective of brain activity and neurotransmitters. Cognitive psychologists liken the mind to a complex processor of information that receives input, processes that input in a systematic manner, and spits out behavior. Even social psychology focuses mainly on deterministic perspectives, rooting the cause of behavior in situational determinants. This focus on deterministic perspectives may be due to the cause and effect nature of science itself, making the study of free will almost impossible from a scientific standpoint. Nevertheless, this places the role of accountability at nil for most explanations of behavioral responses.

Despite the difficulties of studying accountability in its purest sense, recent social psychological research has focused on the effects of choice, control, responsibility, and accountability for one’s actions. Evidence has shown that people feel responsible for their behavior, and that people often feel and act as if they may be held accountable for the things that they do. People like to have choices and react aversively when those choices are restricted. Also, accountability seems to be a necessary component to many emotions. It is hard to imagine a situation in which a person would feel pride, guilt, shame, or embarrassment for acts that he or she does not feel accountable for. Indeed, perceived accountability seems to have a large effect on the way people act.

Effects of Accountability

The mere presence of others is likely responsible for many of the effects of accountability. Human beings are the only animals that participate in complex societies and cultures. Much of our success as individuals hinges on our ability to play by society’s rules. Thus, people display a strong need to belong and want to be evaluated positively by others in the group. Those who do so are more likely to reap the positive benefits inherent in group living. When others are in our presence, we have a sense that our behavior is being evaluated. This increases our sense of accountability and results in increased adherence to unspoken social rules and laws outlined by culture.

Nevertheless, accountability is a multifaceted phenomenon. Therefore, its effect on behavior can vary from situation to situation. First of all, the presence of others is not entirely necessary for people to feel accountable. People can feel accountable if they simply believe they will be evaluated and have to justify their decisions.

Increased accountability will alter decision-making strategies. When expecting evaluation from an audience, people will think more carefully about their decisions than they normally would. They will consider the outcomes of their judgments and process the relevant information more deliberatively. Under low-accountability situations, people can process the relevant information superficially, knowing that any decision made will not be scrutinized. Nevertheless, when under increased accountability, a greater consideration of possible counterarguments is necessary as the person must be able to fend off criticism during the evaluation process.

Critical to the decision-making process is whether the opinions of the audience are known or not. If the opinions of the evaluator are known, people will tend to conform to that opinion, as any argument against the majority opinion will be more difficult to defend. Conversely, when the opinions of the evaluator are unknown, people will think more analytically and self-critically about their decision and attempt to look at the issue from multiple perspectives. This is in people’s best interest, as they may be asked to justify their decision if it is against what the audience believes.

The effects of accountability will also vary depending on when the person is informed that he or she will be evaluated. If informed about evaluation before making a decision, people will expend more effort to make what they feel to be the correct decision. If informed after their decision has been made, however, people will stick with their original decision and more effort will be expended toward justification of that decision.

The presence of others does not always increase accountability. As group size increases, accountability can decrease. Through a process called deindividuation, people lose their sense of self and become an inseparable part of a collective group. As group size increases, each individual member becomes less identifiable and consequently perceives him- or herself as less accountable for the actions of the group. The reduction in felt responsibility is said to account for the behaviors of people during riots, though this is undoubtedly an extreme example. Deindividuation can also have an effect on group performance at a much smaller level.

Social loafing occurs when the individual members of a group perform at a lower level than they would if they were to perform the task alone. The performance of a group is often measured as the final output of the group rather than individual output. In this low-accountability situation, individuals decrease their own effort in the hopes that others in the group will pick up the slack. Nevertheless, this is only true when individual performance is not measured. If members of a group are told that their individual performance will be assessed, they are more likely to perform as they would if executing the task alone. Under these conditions, people are under an increased degree of accountability, and individual and group performance will increase. Therefore, two heads can be better than one, but only when the individuals are held accountable.


  • Lerner, J. S., & Tetlock, P. E. (1999). Accounting for the effects of accountability. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 255-275.