Why Does Cancel Culture Exist?

The concept of cancel culture has one very important question behind it: “Is accountability being applied equitably, and justified?” This is a very interesting question to because I said I would, a nonprofit firmly rooted in the principle of accountability. However, the phrase is politically divisive and we are a nonpartisan organization. We have no interest in favoring any political party or ideology, so it is out-of-scope for us to discuss specific examples of how this phenomena applies to current events. 

Instead, we want to talk about WHY people want to hold others accountable and a range of accountability motives that may connect with both sides of the cancel culture issue. Some of the motives may be good, others may not be.

Here are four accountability motives that can help you understand why people act the way they do: 

1. Hypocrisy-based Accountability

At a biological level, humans do not like it when someone says one thing but then does the opposite. Our distaste for hypocrisy can be so extreme that we have a tendency to enforce punishment that doesn’t fit the crime. If the culprit performed the same undesired action BUT never said they were going to do the opposite, many people wouldn’t even care. For example, your husband says he’s going to mow the grass today. The grass could certainly be mowed tomorrow, but he said today. You accuse him of  “never” mowing the grass and now you’re both upset. If nothing was said, you wouldn’t have even cared, but hypocrisy-based accountability kicks in and you get upset. Is this justified? That may depend on the next type of accountability motive….

2. Persona-based Accountability

Have you ever been extremely upset with someone about a small broken promise? There’s a good chance you were actually upset with them about something else entirely. That’s where persona-based accountability enters the game. Sometimes we want to hold people accountable simply because we don’t like them.  They may have beliefs we dislike or maybe they committed an offense in the past that we consider unforgivable. When the primary driver for accountability is personality, overall character and unrelated activity,  it is likely that persona-based accountability is at the wheel. 

3. Impact-based Accountability

In many ways, this is probably the most justifiable motive for accountability. Impact-based accountability is when someone wants to hold another person accountable because their actions had significant and real negative consequences on the lives of others. We don’t want to watch the world suffer so we use accountability to identify issues, set standards and prevent history from repeating itself.  

4. Deflection-based Accountability

Imagine you’re in a conversation with someone who just broke a commitment to you. You begin talking about the shortfall and they immediately respond with “WELL, REMEMBER THAT TIME YOU [INSERT MISTAKE HERE]!” Their reaction to accountability is to change the subject by deflecting the conversation to some other problem. In other words, they want to hold you accountable simply because you are holding them accountable. There are a lot of reasons people can’t face the truth of their own broken promises (e.g. fear of consequences, low self-esteem, misunderstanding of facts, residual feelings of hypocrisy towards you, etc.). 

Pro Tip

Don’t let accountability be a knee-jerk reaction: When you get angry at another person for their actions, slow down. Try to identify which of these 4 types of accountability motives may be playing into your emotions.  Ask yourself “Is the accountability I am searching for justifiable?” If it is, make sure you approach accountability in a style the other party will be receptive to. Some people focus too much on feeling a sense of justice; when most of the time, the situation would be better if our main focus was on improvement and reform. 

Thought-Provoking/Discussion Questions for You, Your Team or Family

  • What’s an example of one of these four accountability motives playing out in real life? 
  • What happens to society when accountability loses meaning? 
  • When’s the last time you were held accountable for your actions and you made a positive change because of it?


Accountability helps individuals and society improve, but can often be expressed in unproductive ways. The four types of accountability motives outlined above help us better understand why people may behave in the ways they do. Accountability is not always expressed in a justified way. And at the same time, many issues that desperately need accountability are largely ignored.