In recent years, cognitive scientists have been trying to explain a curious psychological quirk called the ‘Knobe effect’. A new paper by Chandra Sekhar Sripada and Sara Konrath in Mind & Language offers an answer.
(As this is a long post, I’ve formatted it as a PDF so you can print it out and read it over a coffee if you prefer)
A little under a decade ago, a young cognitive scientist called Joshua Knobe, now at Yale University, ran a series of simple experiments with people in a Manhattan Park. He asked half of them to read the following story:
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.
He then asked his participants, “Did the Chairman intentionally harm the environment?”. The vast majority — around 82% — said yes, he did.
Meanwhile, Knobe asked the other half of his interviewees to read exactly the same passage, but with the word ‘harm’ replaced with ‘help’, and then had them answer the question, “Did the Chairman intentionally help the environment?” Now most people (77%) said no, he did not1,2.
These results — and they’ve been replicated many times since — are a bit surprising. The mechanics of both situations are identical: the chairman signs off a project irrespective of its environmental impact, although in one scenario the outcome is bad (the environment gets harmed), and in the other, it’s good (the environment is helped). So shouldn’t the outcomes, whether good or bad, be seen as equally intentional or unintentional? Well, these findings suggest they’re not: it looks like the ‘moral flavour’ of the outcomes of actions — that is, whether they’re good or bad — shapes whether or not we construe those actions as having been performed intentionally.