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Sunday, July 4, 2021

Understanding Side-Effect Intentionality Asymmetries: Meaning, Morality, or Attitudes and Defaults?

Laurent SM, Reich BJ, Skorinko JLM. 
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 


People frequently label harmful (but not helpful) side effects as intentional. One proposed explanation for this asymmetry is that moral considerations fundamentally affect how people think about and apply the concept of intentional action. We propose something else: People interpret the meaning of questions about intentionally harming versus helping in fundamentally different ways. Four experiments substantially support this hypothesis. When presented with helpful (but not harmful) side effects, people interpret questions concerning intentional helping as literally asking whether helping is the agents’ intentional action or believe questions are asking about why agents acted. Presented with harmful (but not helpful) side effects, people interpret the question as asking whether agents intentionally acted, knowing this would lead to harm. Differences in participants’ definitions consistently helped to explain intentionality responses. These findings cast doubt on whether side-effect intentionality asymmetries are informative regarding people’s core understanding and application of the concept of intentional action.

From the Discussion

Second, questions about intentionality of harm may focus people on two distinct elements presented in the vignette: the agent’s  intentional action  (e.g., starting a profit-increasing program) and the harmful secondary outcome he knows this goal-directed action will cause. Because the concept of intentionality is most frequently applied to actions rather than consequences of actions (Laurent, Clark, & Schweitzer, 2015), reframing the question as asking about an intentional action undertaken with foreknowledge of harm has advantages. It allows consideration of key elements from the story and is responsive to what people may feel is at the heart of the question: “Did the chairman act intentionally, knowing this would lead to harm?” Notably, responses to questions capturing this idea significantly mediated intentionality responses in each experiment presented here, whereas other variables tested failed to consistently do so.