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.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Social Psychology