Good Intentions Are in the Eye of the Beholder: Culture Shapes Perceived Intentionality
by Cory Clark
When determining whether someone did something intentionally, should it matter whether the action had positive or negative consequences? Logically, the downstream consequences of an action should be irrelevant to such judgments, but research reveals that U.S. Americans are far more likely to see actions with harmful side-effects as intended than identical actions with helpful ones.
Consider the following example:
The vice president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, “We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment.” The chairman of the board answered, “I don’t care at all about harming the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.” They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was harmed.
Now ask yourself: Did the chairman of board harm the environment intentionally?
If you are like most other people, you answered “yes.” About 80% of people do. But what if the program was going to help the environment and the chairman again sought only to increase profits without a care for the helpful consequences? Did he help the environment intentionally?
In fact, when people are asked about this identical scenario but with helpful consequences, the majority say the chairman did not intentionally help the environment. But why? In a recent paper, my colleagues, Christopher Bauman, Shanmukh Kamble, Eric Knowles, and I found that helpful actions were perceived as more intended in cultures that more highly value helping behaviors (i.e., interdependent cultures) than in the U.S., due to higher perceptions that such actions are praiseworthy.
THE SIDE-EFFECT EFFECT
The tendency for people to perceive harmful actions as intended but not helpful ones has been dubbed the “Side-Effect Effect” or the “Knobe Effect” in honor of philosopher, Joshua Knobe, who discovered it. The puzzling aspect is that a judgment that should be based on considerations such as whether the chairman knew what the consequences would be or whether he desired them to occur appears to be influenced by the moral valence of the consequences (harmful vs. helpful).
It is argued that this asymmetry reflects strong motives to blame. In other words, people see harmful side-effects as intended because they want grounds to blame the harmful actor. Presumably, punishing reckless behavior has more utility than praising collateral benefit.
In our work, we suggest that the Side-Effect Effect does not merely reflect some inherent human drive to blame. Rather, we suggest that intentionality judgments can be shaped by cultural differences in moral belief systems, and that praise motives can also influence intentionality judgments—if you know where to look for them.
WHERE PRAISE MATTERS
In the United States, the predominant culture emphasizes independence and self-sufficiency, with relatively little obligation toward the well-being of others. In contrast, Indian culture emphasizes interdependence and obligation toward their community. In both cultures, harming others is wrong, but in India, helping others is more morally obligatory than in the U.S. Thus, if differences in culturally prescribed moral obligations shape intentionality judgments, U.S. Americans and Indians ought to be equally likely to judge harmful actions as blameworthy and intended, while Indians may be more likely to judge helpful actions as praiseworthy and intended than U.S. Americans.
In four studies, this is exactly what we found.
For example, in the scenario above regarding a chairman making a decision that ultimately harmed or helped the environment, roughly 80-85% of both Indians and U.S. Americans felt the chairman intentionally harmed the environment. However, when evaluating the chairman for helping the environment, Indians were approximately 5 times as likely to say the chairman intended to help. Furthermore, we found that this difference was due to Indians’ perception that actions with helpful consequences were more worthy of moral praise.
A similar pattern emerged in alternate scenarios: a chairman making a decision that resulted in the hiring or firing of 50 people. Indians and U.S. Americans saw firing 50 people as equally intended, while Indians saw hiring 50 people as more intended.
To ensure that it was morally positive actions specifically that Indians were more inclined to see as intended (as opposed to all behavior, with harmful actions being the exception in which strong blame motives overwhelm this difference), we also had them evaluate the intentionality underlying decisions that resulted in morally neutral side-effects, such as changing team meetings from Tuesdays to Wednesdays or changing the company logo. Indeed, in these neutral cases, Indians and U.S. Americans judged them as equally intended.
Overall, participants’ intentionality judgments differed between cultures according to the moral significance of actions, in a way that was sensitive to blameworthiness and praiseworthiness.
WHY INTENTION MATTERS
Perceived intentionality is an important determinant of whether and to what extent people ought to be blamed and praised for their actions. For example, many legal systems use perceived intentionality as a criterion for conviction and punishment. Indeed perceived intentionality constitutes the distinction between first-degree murder and manslaughter.
However, it appears that desires to both blame and praise influence the very judgments by which blame and praise are warranted: whether actions were intended. In other words, while harmful actions are more blameworthy and helpful actions more praiseworthy when they were intended, blame and praise also increase perceptions that such actions were intended. And while there are no legal consequences for intentionally or unintentionally helping the environment, the former is more likely to score you a ‘World’s Best Boss’ mug.
 Knobe, J. (2003). Intentional action and side-effects in ordinary language.’’ Analysis, 63, 190-194.
 Clark, C. J., Bauman, C. W., Kamble, S., & Knowles, E. D. Intentional sin and accidental virtue: Cultural differences in moral systems influence perceived intentionality. Social Psychological and Personality Science. Online before print August 30, 2016.
 Miller, J. G., Bersoff, D. M., & Harwood, R. L. (1990). Perceptions of social responsibilities in India and the United States: Moral imperatives or personal decisions? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 33–47.