A Bad Outcome Implies Intent

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Science  28 Apr 2006:
Vol. 312, Issue 5773, pp. 500-501
DOI: 10.1126/science.312.5773.500e

The last storyline on a once-popular television show described the prosecution of four defendants under the Good Samaritan law on the grounds that they had failed to act to prevent harm. The capacity to form judgments of morality (good/bad or helpful/harmful) and of intentionality (an outcome brought about deliberately/accidentally) has been one of the experimentally accessible aspects of investigations into how and when children develop a theory of mind and an understanding of causality.

Leslie et al. have combined these two themes in a study of when children exhibit an adult-like asymmetry in making a distinction between a harmful side effect, which grown-ups commonly think of as being intentional and hence morally suspect, and a good side effect, which is usually regarded as an unintentional consequence of the action. They find evidence for this behavior, which they call the side-effect effect, in 4- and 5-year-olds but not in 3-year old children. In the specific scenario tested, that of Janine who disliked/liked a frog brought over by Andy, who did not care about her feelings about frogs, the older children were abler in correctly grasping his indifference, and then attributing purposefulness to the bad outcome but not the good one. — GJC

Psychol. Sci. 17, 422 (2006).

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