The Side-Effect Effect

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Science  18 Jun 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5985, pp. 1457
DOI: 10.1126/science.328.5985.1457-c

A robust phenomenon established empirically during the past decade is the tendency of observers to regard morally bad consequences (such as harm to the environment) that occur as a secondary effect of actions taken by an agent (such as a corporate CEO) in the course of achieving the primary effect—an increase in revenue—as having been committed intentionally. In contrast, morally good consequences in a similar scenario are judged as being incidental. A number of explanations for this asymmetry (also known as the Knobe effect) have been put forth; most prominent, perhaps, is the proposal that the moral valence of the side effect alters the observer's inference about the agent's mental state; that is, whether the CEO acted with intent. Uttich and Lombrozo bring to bear a series of vignettes in which the type of social norm (moral versus conventional), the kind of behavior (norm-conforming versus norm-violating), and the outcome valence (helpful versus harmful) were varied independently. Their results support a “rational scientist” framework, so that the observer's computation of the agent's state of mind weights actions that flout commonly accepted rules of behavior as being more informative and hence diagnostic of intentionality than conformist ones.

Cognition 116, 87 (2010).

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