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Thursday, August 19, 2021

A simple definition of ‘intentionally’

Quillien, T., & German, T. C.
Volume 214, September 2021, 104806


Cognitive scientists have been debating how the folk concept of intentional action works. We suggest a simple account: people consider that an agent did X intentionally to the extent that X was causally dependent on how much the agent wanted X to happen (or not to happen). Combined with recent models of human causal cognition, this definition provides a good account of the way people use the concept of intentional action, and offers natural explanations for puzzling phenomena such as the side-effect effect. We provide empirical support for our theory, in studies where we show that people's causation and intentionality judgments track each other closely, in everyday situations as well as in scenarios with unusual causal structures. Study 5 additionally shows that the effect of norm violations on intentionality judgments depends on the causal structure of the situation, in a way uniquely predicted by our theory. Taken together, these results suggest that the folk concept of intentional action has been difficult to define because it is made of cognitive building blocks, such as our intuitive concept of causation, whose logic cognitive scientists are just starting to understand.

From the end

People can use the word “intentionally” in very strange ways. Our intuitions about whether something is intentional are swayed by moral considerations, are pulled one way or another depending on the amount
of control an agent exerts, and are influenced by how circuitous the causal chain between the agent and the outcome is. Intentionality requires a relevant belief, but the latter can be present in very small doses.
Norm-violating actions are judged as more intentional than norm-conforming actions – except when they are judged as less intentional.

These seemingly erratic intuitions can be anxiety-inducing. One might conclude that our commonsense psychology is fundamentally moralistic; that linguistic meaning is hopelessly entangled in its context;
or that motivational and pragmatic factors constantly warp our intuitions about the proper extension of words.

We think such anxiety might be misplaced. Instead, we view the strangeness of “intentionally” as emerging naturally from the core structure of the concept. The way people use the concept of intentional
action offers a fascinating window on some of the building blocks that make up human thought: it lets us glimpse into our implicit causal model of the mind, and the algorithms with which we assign causes to events.