New research helps explain the paradox of why we are quick to blame people for their actions, but slower to give them credit.
It all comes down to intention, according to researchers at Duke University.
According to the scientists, we are constantly assessing other people’s intentions in what they do, whether it is helping an elderly person cross the street or committing a crime.
Published in Scientific Reports, the new 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 lead author Lawrence Ngo, M.D., now a first-year resident in internal medicine at the Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital in Greensboro, N.C.
To make their case, the researchers posit this scenario commonly used in experimental philosophy: “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 are part of the majority. In a previous study, 82 percent said the CEO was deliberate.
But when researchers replaced the word “harm” with “help” in the scenario, only 23 percent deemed the CEO’s actions intentional.
“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 Scott Huettel, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neuroscience and a member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.
“Intentionality implies purpose on the part of the person, and that should be there for good as much as it is for bad. But it’s not.”
To understand why, the researchers embarked on the new study to assess differences in personality traits and other psychological measures. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they also analyzed the activity of individuals’ brains while they read the scenarios.
The researchers found that people use two different mechanisms to judge how intentional an action was. If the action produced a negative effect, the 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 known for their role in processing negative emotions.
The greater the emotional reaction the participant reported having to a particular story, the stronger it activated their amygdala, according to the study’s findings.
But if an action produced a positive effect, it was less likely to set off the amygdala, the researchers reported.
For positive outcomes, people relied less on emotion and more on statistics, according to the scientists. They thought about how often people in a particular situation would behave in a similar way, the researchers explained.
So 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.
In the criminal justice system, how intentional a crime was often affects the final ruling, as well as our broader moral judgments.
But the new study shows that it 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, Huettel said.
Source: Duke University
PHOTO: As shown in this functional MRI image, the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in processing emotions, is more active in people who are blaming others for their negative actions. Credit: Lawrence Ngo.