Published in Scientific Reports, the Duke study is "the first to use neuroscience research tools to try to explain why people are biased toward treating negative actions as intentional but positive actions as unintentional," said the study's lead author.
The CEO knew the plan would harm the environment, but he did not care at all about the effect the plan would have on the environment. He started the plan solely to increase profits. Did the CEO intentionally harm the environment?
If you said 'yes,' then you align with the majority: In previously published work, 82% responded that the CEO was deliberate. When the researchers replaced the single word "harm" with "help" in the scenario, however, only 23% deemed the CEO's actions intentional. The research team found similar results when they posed numerous similar situations to study participants.
"There's no logical reason why we would call something intentional, just because it causes a bad outcome as opposed to a good outcome," said corresponding author.
To understand why, the team assessed differences in personality traits and other psychological measures. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, a type of non-invasive brain scan, the researchers also analyzed activity of individuals' brains while they read the scenarios.
The team found that people use two different mechanisms to judge how intentional an action was. If the action produced a negative effect, participants were more likely to draw on brain areas involved in processing emotion (in particular, the amygdala, a pair of almond-shaped structures deep in the brain that is well known for its role in processing negative emotions).
The greater the emotional reaction the participant reported having to a particular story, the stronger it activated their amygdala. But if an action produced a positive effect, it was less likely to set off the amygdala.
On the other hand, for positive outcomes people relied less on emotion and more on statistics. That is, they thought about how often people in a particular situation would behave in a similar way. In the example of the CEO who makes a profit and also helps the environment, participants were more likely to say that because CEOs commonly aim to make money, helping the environment was an unintentional side-effect.
How intentional a crime was often affects the final ruling, and our broader moral judgments. But this new study shows that the arrow can go in both directions: Moral judgments about whether an action harmed others can influence judgments about how intentional that action was in the first place.