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“But I didn’t mean it!” Why it’s so hard to prioritize impacts over intents.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I spend a lot of time talking with friends and colleagues about societal issues that we find meaningful and important. Racism. Sexism. Cultural sensitivity. Prejudice. Implicit biases.

This is a line that we often find ourselves repeating:

“It’s not about intent. It’s about impact.”

It came up in a discussion with several friends in reference to an article noting the similarities between Color Runs and the Hindu religious festival Holi. It came up in many discussions about Paula Deen, Alec Baldwin, and Kickstarter. I even noted it myself, in my post on benevolent sexism, when I said that “it’s not OK for people to tell [a woman] that she should just change how she feels because she’s being too sensitive or reading too much into things. Guess what? If you say something and you make someone feel seriously uncomfortable, it’s now on you to give serious consideration to why that person might feel that way. That’s how empathy and being a nice human being works.” And earlier today, in a fantastically articulate, thoughtful, and informative post by my fellow blogger Kate Clancy on issues facing women (specifically women of color) in STEM careers, she also noted the importance of focusing on intent vs. impact when evaluating institutional actions that have negative impacts with racist or sexist implications, even if those actions were not necessarily intended to be “racist” or “sexist” in and of themselves.1

The overall message in all of these conversations is that when someone does something hurtful or offensive to another person, the perpetrator’s intent is not what’s most important when gauging the appropriateness of an action — in fact, many would say that it is inherently privileged to redirect the focus of a conversation to the perpetrator’s (presumably harmless) intentions, rather than focusing on the feelings and experiences of the person who has been harmed. So, the point is that we really need to focus on impact, not intent. Was someone hurt by something? Was there a negative outcome? Did someone suffer? If so, that is what’s important. Whether or not the perpetrator meant to cause harm is not.

I want to be very clear that I agree with the importance of emphasizing impact over intent. I also recognize the fact that no one is claiming this process of learning to focus on impact (vs. intent) is supposed to be easy. I have never heard anyone allege that this process is supposed to come naturally to people. However, there’s a fundamental issue in this “intent vs. impact” distinction. Pitting intent versus impact presumes that the two are orthogonal — when, in fact, they very much are not.

When it comes to our attributions of guilt, blame, suffering, (im)morality, benevolence, pain, or any number of other outcomes, our perceptions of intent are – and have always been – a critically important factor in our perceptions of impact. When participants are told that the actions of one individual have harmed another, the perceived intent behind that action drives whether those participants want the offender to simply apologize and compensate the harmed person (careless/accidental harm) or if they want to seek retribution and punish the offender (intentional harm). Intentional acts are even seen (and experienced) as objectively more harmful than unintentional acts – even when the end results are actually identical. When participants in one study received equally strong electric shocks, those who thought the shocks were administered intentionally actually experienced them as being more painful than those who thought they were administered by accident. In a recent study by Daniel Ames and Susan Fiske, participants read about a CEO who cost his employees part of their paychecks through a bad investment. Crucially, he either did this because (a) he intentionally wanted them to work harder for profits in the future or (b) he simply made an unfortunate mistake. It’s unsurprising that people would assign the CEO more blame in the former condition. However, what might be surprising to many is that these perceptions of intent actually swayed how participants judged the impact of the situation. Participants saw the paycheck cut as “more damaging” to employees and their families in the latter scenario, even though the employees suffered the exact same objective financial loss in both cases. Indeed, in a series of similar studies, Ames and Fiske show over and over again that people are more motivated to assign blame when a harmful act is seen as intentional, and this motivation to effectively “build a case” against the perpetrator leads them to actually perceive the end results as being more harmful, important, or meaningful than they would have if the same exact outcome had occurred unintentionally.

We see evidence that intent and impact are not orthogonal in the literature on morality, as well. In a recent paper, Kurt Gray, Liane Young, and Adam Waytz2 argue that all moral judgments can essentially be explained as a dyadic interaction between a moral agent (a perpetrator with the capacity to have intentions and carry out behaviors) and a moral patient (a recipient or victim with the capacity to experience positive or negative outcomes as a result of those behaviors). According to this model, we judge the degree of (im)morality present in a situation by gauging the amount of intent and experience involved – actions with higher levels of suffering and higher levels of harmful intent are seen as more immoral. We see this focus on both intent and impact in our own legal system, too, which accounts for the importance of differential impacts by meting out harsher punishments for acts that cause more suffering (e.g., vehicular manslaughter vs. reckless driving), but also accounts for the importance of differential intent by meting out different punishments for acts with identical outcomes that happen to have different levels of intentionality (e.g., murder vs. manslaughter).

This sense that the most highly immoral acts consist of a high degree of suffering and a high degree of agency (or harmful intent) can actually sway how we perceive situations. Not only are intentional transgressions linked to higher levels of perceived suffering (as we saw in the study with the CEO above), but higher levels of suffering actually make us want to find & assign more harmful intent (this could be why, for example, it is seen as so much worse or blameworthy when someone does not help an identifiable victim — because the suffering in this situation is far more salient, people seek to attribute higher levels of blame or negative intentions). Our mental links between intentionality and impact are so strong, in fact, that even unrelated bad intentions can make an act seem more blameworthy. People assign more blame to a driver for running a stop sign when he’s rushing home to hide cocaine, as opposed to when he’s rushing home to hide an anniversary present. People see harm as more “permissible” when it is inflicted indirectly – for example, a drug company is deemed less “blameworthy” when it increases the price of an important drug through an intermediate company rather than directly. Important events are more likely to be attributed to intentional agents, presumably because it makes it easier to feel like we can predict and control these outcomes if we can understand the intentions underlying them. And our obsession with intention doesn’t take long to develop; there is experimental evidence that babies as young as 10- to 12-months old make inferences about agents’ intentions and goals, and interpret their behaviors accordingly.

When we talk about intent vs. impact, we are often focusing on the perpetrator’s intentions and the victim’s felt impacts. Because these are occurring across two separate people, it’s easy for us to think of these constructs as orthogonal — and to encourage people to consider impacts independently of intents. But unfortunately, we live in a really messy world, filled with really messy minds that don’t always think rationally. Observers’ judgments of impacts will almost certainly be swayed by perceived intentions — so the sheer act of encouraging people to focus on the impacts (rather than the intentions) is not necessarily a good strategy, as those very perceptions of “impacts” (and how severe they are) will already have been biased by presumed intentions. And as we saw with the shock machine experiment mentioned above, even someone’s own perception of the impact of an event on themselves can be swayed by perceived intentions. It would be great if we could live in a world where “intent” and “impact” could be separated from each other and analyzed orthogonally. Unfortunately, it really does not seem possible for this to truly happen.

Of course, again, I want to be perfectly clear that I am in no way saying that we should not be considering impacts as more important (or meaningful) than intentions. And I’m not saying that we should focus on intent rather than impact – after all, nothing in the research that I’ve cited thus far has ever suggested that intent is more important than impact. If anything, it places them both as equal contributors to people’s perceptions and attributions. But it is a cognitive bias that can explain why it is difficult for people to focus solely on impacts. In the words of Ames and Fiske themselves in the abstract of their study cited above, their results suggest that “people may focus on intentional harms to the neglect of unintentional (but equally damaging) harms” (emphasis mine). This entire line of research does not argue that intentional harms are more damaging than unintentional ones. But it points to a reason why people might be biased towards focusing on intents rather than impacts, and why those of us struggling to emphasize this “intent vs. impact” point might be hitting a wall.

As long as we continue to engage with societal issues in which there is an agent with intentions and a patient receiving the consequences of those actions, we must all struggle to tease apart these issues of intent and impact. We must all focus on how actions that harm others — regardless of intent — need to be addressed, not pushed under the rug because the agent “didn’t mean” to do anything wrong. Yet at the same time, we must learn to understand our own cognitive biases, and how we can’t continue to treat intent and impact as if they are cognitively separate, orthogonal factors.

How can we address this? How can we take this knowledge and use it to help us address these issues, to help people do a better job of addressing impacts regardless of intents?

I’m honestly not sure. But I’m willing to keep grappling with these issues. And I hope you’ll join me.

1. Kate’s post was on recent events that have transpired within the SciAm blog network, specifically in reference to our friend & colleague Danielle Lee, a post that she wrote on personal experiences with racism & sexism being pulled down off the network on Friday afternoon, and the subsequent uproar over this post being removed (a decision that we are all hoping and expecting will be reversed imminently). While these events certainly inspired a lot of my thinking on these issues, this post is meant to speak to this “intent vs. impact” distinction in a broader context as well, not solely pertaining to the events of this weekend.

2. As you might notice, the author on several of these papers (Adam Waytz) is also a blogger here on the SciAm network. My choice to use his research in writing this post is purely coincidental. I did not consult him on this post, and the opinions expressed in this post are purely my own. (Well, for all I know they might also be his, but we haven’t spoken about this post, so I do not know either way.)

Alicke, M. D. (1992). Culpable causation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 368-378.

American Law Institute. (1962). Model Penal Code.

Ames, D.L., & Fiske, S.T. (2013). Intentional harms are worse, even when they’re not. Psychological Science, 24, 1755-1762.

Cushman, F. (2008). Crime and punishment: Distinguishing the roles of causal and intentional analyses in moral judgment. Cognition, 108, 353-380.

Darley, J.M., & Pittman, T.S. (2003). The psychology of compensatory and retributive justice. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 7, 324-336.

Epley, N., Waytz, A., & Cacioppo, J.T. (2007). On seeing human: A three-factor theory of anthropomorphism. Psychological Review, 114, 864-886.

Gergely, G., Nadasdy, Z., Csibra, G., & Biro, S. (1995). Taking the intentional stance at 12 months of age. Cognition, 56, 165-193.

Gray, K., Young, L., & Waytz, A. (2012). Mind perception is the essence of morality. Psychological Inquiry, 23, 101-124.

Gray, K., & Wegner, D.M. (2008). The sting of intentional pain. Psychological Science, 19, 1260-1262.

Rochat, P., Striano, T., & Morgan, R. (2004). Who is doing what to whom? Young infants’ developing sense of social causality in animated displays. Perception, 33, 355-369.

Saxe, R., Tenenbaum, J.B., & Carey, S. (2005). Secret agents: Inferences about hidden causes by 10- and 12-month-old infants. Psychological Science, 16, 995-1001.

Featured image via McKnackus at DeviantArt; available under Creative Commons license.

Melanie Tannenbaum About the Author: Melanie Tannenbaum is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she received an M.A. in social psychology in 2011. Her research focuses on the science of persuasion & motivation regarding political, health-related, and environmental behavior. You can add her on Twitter or visit her personal webpage. Follow on Twitter @melanietbaum.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. ChrisMartin76 3:26 pm 10/14/2013

    Thank you for writing this. As a social psychologist, I often bring this up too. However, I also advocate that people consider intentional harm as worse than unintentional harm. I’m puzzled by the fact that some people think intent is moot, and it seems as though this thinking is influenced by conformity to a cultural norm, and always directed at others. In other words, I haven’t seen any cases where a person blamed himself or herself for an unintentional harm with the same magnitude as one would have expected for an intentional harm.

    Of course, this also intersects with issues of distributive justice vs. procedural justice. One of Phil Tetlock’s recent papers has an interesting take on when liberals switch from a procedural framework to a distributive framework when a liberal sacred value is at stake. And conversely, conservatives do the opposite when a conservative sacred value is at stake.

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  2. 2. rkipling 4:49 pm 10/14/2013

    I was waiting to read your thoughts on this incident and the reverberations through many blogs about it.

    It’s a challenge to understand how “intent vs. impact” would apply to the insult by the blog editor. I read the exchange. It seemed very clear the editor had that specific impact as an intention. I’m pretty sure he/she meant it to be hurtful. I have a question about intent vs. impact, but I’ll come back to that later.

    Regarding Scientific American’s response, I have a speculation. Over the last couple of years I’ve seen many comments and several blog posts more incendiary and less related to science than Dr. Lee’s. So, I wondered what made her post sufficiently distinctive to invoke a hereto undisclosed rule (double-secret probation.) One of the possible answers that came to me was Dr. Lee’s reversion to gangsta roots in her response. Let me quickly add that she has every right to respond in the manor she likes. You are the psychologist, but my guess is Dr. Lee made a conscious choice to emphasize her ethnicity as a means of making her “agent” seem even viler as a racist in addition to a misogynist. She’s a smart lady. I think it worked judging by the support she has.

    So, I wonder if Scientific American thought it was unseemly for a Doctor of Philosophy to be seen in that light? Her response is her call. It was just very surprising.

    Back to “intent and impact”. If impact is controlling, then the patient is also in control in every instance. Whatever is done/said by the agent with whatever intent, the patient can claim redress for harm whether the harm be real or simply alleged. In the case of Dr. Lee, the harm was real without question.

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  3. 3. AllanRBrewer 4:52 pm 10/14/2013

    I don’t know if I am alone but I find this article really disturbing and surprising. How can one possibly predict all the varieties of over-sensitivity which possibly/probably abound all around? And worse, when aware of over-sensitivities, one is effectively censored from making statements about e.g. religion, immigration etc. If religions go unchallenged they will persist anachronistically – which is of course why they construe blasphemy and offence – to prevent questioning. If immigration cannot be discussed then fair and sensible policies cannot be devised or voted on. I would suggest that taking offence is perhaps more morally wrong than inadvertently giving offence.

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  4. 4. Percival 5:57 pm 10/14/2013

    Paraphrased from a friend’s sig file:

    “When women gather they compliment each other, but they don’t really mean it.

    “When men gather they insult each other. They don’t really mean it either.”

    There are cultural norms, and there are other sub-cultural norms. In my opinion, determining whether a person is in the habit of intentionally causing harm is extremely important to maintaining social order, hence determining intent matters. However, the markers (facial expression, body language, word choice patterns, and other behaviors) differ in different social contexts and can thus be misinterpreted easily.

    Being human is complicated.

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  5. 5. EMoon 6:49 pm 10/14/2013

    There are other aspects to the intent/impact discussions: the reliability of the agent-narrator (both for internal narration and public narration) and the range of behaviors from pure intent (“Yes, I meant to shoot him” to pure accident “I didn’t know the gun was loaded, honest.”) It’s not a binary situation.

    Individuals are not always–or entirely–truthful. And accidents are often the result of behaviors that–like all behaviors–reflect a sort of tensor calculus of competing motivations. (My engineer mother used to say that accidents don’t “happen”–they are “caused,” and mostly caused by human behaviors that could have been different.) John didn’t mean to hurt Bill when he ran into him on the sidewalk, but he wasn’t driving carefully–he was texting or driving while drunk or some other behavior/condition that was under his control and impaired his driving. Smith didn’t mean to make Jones feel bad by telling that racist joke–but didn’t bother to consider whether it would be offensive to Jones (or a friend of Jones who might tell Jones about it.) Both the offenders will consider it was “just an accident” and they meant no harm; at least some of those injured will consider that failure to prevent harm is at least partial intent: that there is a moral duty to take some level of care in social situations,be it a roadway or a living room or a boardroom.

    Since it’s widely observed that people do lie about their level of intent, there’s a bias towards assigning intent unless there’s evidence against it. (Easily seen in law enforcement and other emergency services–paramedics hear almost as many lame excuses as police personnel–but also in informal interpersonal situations.) How much the agent knew–could or should have known–about the potential for harm is a common topic in arguments resulting from an injury…including in court.

    I would suggest that when any injury at any level has occurred, the impact be dealt with as legitimate (in other words, without trying to minimize the impact,guilt the person who suffered it into agreeing it wasn’t that bad, or imply that the victim caused the injury.) Whether the person or entity causing the injury admits intent or not, an appropriate apology without weasel words (in other words, no “I’m sorry if this upset/hurt/sickened/crippled you” but only “I’m sorry I caused this injury (specified.) Followed by an injury-appropriate offer of recompense: “I’ve called an ambulance; my insurance or I will pay for it” or “I’ve ruined your suit–let me buy you another one.” Defining the level of intent should come later; using denial of intent as a way to avoid helping the injured person or avoid making an apology is,in my view, wrong. “I didn’t mean to step on you–c’mon, it doesn’t hurt THAT much, quit being such a wimp about it” is not just callous but ineffective in getting the injured person to agree that “an accident” means no responsibility.

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  6. 6. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 10:16 pm 10/14/2013

    @Percival —

    “Being human is complicated.”

    Yes, yes it is. That’s why social psychologists like me have a job. :)

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  7. 7. rkipling 10:29 pm 10/14/2013

    We are pleased that you do.

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  8. 8. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 10:44 pm 10/14/2013


    I agree with you that it can be very stressful (and often exhausting) to have to worry at all times about who we might offend or upset with any given thing that we might say. What I have found, however (and I can only speak for myself, but I imagine many others feel the same way), is that a little bit of willingness to engage with these issues can go a long way. Even the best, most socially conscious allies mess up and say the wrong things sometimes. No one is perfect. It happens, and it happens to everyone. Ideally, most people reading this are already actively trying not to say anything overtly racist or sexist in their everyday lives. As for things that might be less “obvious” and would still upset someone, this is where the “intent vs. impact” factor comes into play. If someone expresses to you that you have said something upsetting or offensive, acknowledging that you have said something hurtful and understanding that it is more about how it has impacted the other person (and less about what you intended) is what’s important.

    As a parallel, imagine you’ve just run over someone’s foot with your car. You didn’t mean to do it — you didn’t see the person there. But the fact remains that you did it anyway. If the person complains that he has been hurt, it clearly DOES matter that you didn’t MEAN to do it when considering how to interpret the situation — so intent is still important. But the impact is clearly just as important, if not moreso. You’ve just crushed someone’s foot. You can’t just say, “Well, I didn’t mean to do it, so you don’t have the right to feel hurt” and expect that to fly. Yes, you didn’t mean to hurt him — but you did. So you need to address that impact, independent of your intent. It is not enough to say that you can’t possibly predict all of the times that people might get in the way of your car, so it’s wrong for people to feel hurt if you accidentally hit them.

    I hope that makes sense. It’s obviously not a perfect comparison, but I think it is important in conveying the larger point at hand. People do mess up. We try and ensure that it happens as infrequently as possible, but it does happen. So when it does, generally, if you are willing to acknowledge that you have harmed someone and ask how that person wants you to rectify the situation, and you are willing to put your best faith effort into not repeating that mistake, that’s what people really want to see.

    Thanks for reading, and I hope this was a satisfactory response.
    - Melanie

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  9. 9. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 11:11 pm 10/14/2013

    @rkipling –

    With regards to the blog editor, we have not heard from “Ofek” as to his intentions, so the “impact vs. intent” distinction is not really relevant with regards to that aspect of all of this (i.e., we aren’t hearing him try to claim that his intentions were good). If he were to come out of the woodwork in a day or so and say that he was just “trying to be funny” and his harmless intentions were misunderstood (or something along those lines), that’s when I believe this focus on intents vs. impacts would come into play.

    With regards to SciAm’s response, I am very deliberately not speaking out about my own personal opinions about how things occurred this weekend. I’m sure you understand. It’s a complex situation with many competing interests and many people who have had feelings hurt, trust broken, etc. I am trying to contribute to the larger discussion with this post, but not interested in contributing to further discussion of the particular details of this weekend on this blog.

    Finally, I cannot speak to any strategic choices on Danielle’s part in making the video or writing her post. In watching the video, I thought she did a remarkably good job of “pivoting” the situation away from her personal redress and into a larger discussion of self-worth and self-valuation, specifically as it applies to underrepresented groups in STEM who might not have the courage or self-confidence to value their work at an appropriate level. I do not feel comfortable analyzing anything about Danielle’s tone or the underlying cultural implications of the manner in which she responded. Many of us (including Bora and Mariette) have expressed admiration for how Danielle turned the situation into an opportunity to discuss broader issues facing women of color in STEM. I encourage any people who might view the video (which has officially been re-posted, thankfully!) to keep these issues in mind. Other than that, I would prefer not to speculate on what Danielle or anyone at Scientific American was thinking at any given time. I also encourage you to keep in mind that “emphasizing ethnicity” is a tricky thing to say someone is doing, as many theorists on the intersectionality of race, ethnicity, and gender would remind you that these identities are inextricably intertwined and it is close to impossible to separate them from one another (e.g., my experience as a white woman, even regarding sexism, is qualitatively different than the experience with sexism that a Black or Hispanic woman might have, even if “race” is never explicitly mentioned within any given interaction).

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  10. 10. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 11:19 pm 10/14/2013

    @ChrisMartin76 –

    I largely agree with you, with the one caveat that I think there is a difference when it comes to things like racism/sexism/classism, which is largely what I am trying to address throughout this post. When it comes to these topics, I think it is important to acknowledge and understand people’s experiences with racism/sexism/classism, even if the person perpetrating the wrongs does not “intend” to do anything harmful. However, when it comes to things like the law, I agree with you that naturally “intentional” harm is, of course, worse than “unintentional” harm. After all, as mentioned in the post, we see this evidenced in the very fact that murder receives a harsher punishment than manslaughter, even though both acts (presumably) result in the same objective outcome. When it comes to these -isms, however, I think we need to be careful not to downplay or suppress someone’s attempt to express a sense of being wronged or offended simply because the perpetrator did not “intend” to say or do anything wrong. I think this is an important distinction to make, though.

    Thanks for reading,

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  11. 11. waterbergs 1:34 am 10/15/2013

    I am very nervous about elevating impact over intent. Consider the following actual events:

    Event 1: Politician speaking at an event refers to a questioner as an “African American”. The questioner is outraged and deeply offended. She is “An American of African Extraction”, how dare the politician be so racist. The politician naturally back peddals like the clappers, but nothing seems to appease the questioner whose anger just mounts. Do you really think just because the questioner got upset the politician was to blame?

    Event 2: Use of the word Ni***rdly. This word is from old Norse and comes from “nigla” – meaning to fuss about small things. However, numerous people including US politician David Howard have been forced to resign after using this word because sone black people were offended – because they thought the word was derived from “ni***r”. Is that fine to destroy someone’s career because you got confused about a words origin and “felt” some sort of “impact” from its use?

    If impact is more important than intent, then heaven help us – we are all at the mercy of anyones misconceptions and hyper sensitivity.

    {NOTE: This post was edited by Melanie Tannenbaum to censor out offensive language.}

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  12. 12. rkipling 5:29 am 10/15/2013

    I think it is a fair assumption that Dr. Lee does not conduct business using her former accent and colloquialisms. She is a very smart and accomplished woman. This was not an extemporaneous utterance. It may have required more than one take. Parts of the video seemed intentionally theatrical. The more I think about it, the part that troubled me was to see her present herself like that. It seemed as though she were disrespecting all her achievements by reverting to Memphis street language to respond. In essence she was saying this is who I really am. Maybe it used to be. I doubt it is now.

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  13. 13. GreyDog 11:46 am 10/15/2013

    This is on the intent rather than the impact side. How much changes if the insult comes from a non-native English speaker? I’ll take it as given that “whore” is known a sexist insult to just about anyone who uses English for professional communication. Ofek’s firing was deserved. But Biology-Online’s responses over the weekend showed some slightly odd turns of phrase. The first acknowledgement included “Derogatory and discriminatory remarks are not encouraged in” The more typical “not tolerated” that a U.S. organization would use wasn’t there and of course some questioned whether “not encouraged” showed lack of understanding of the seriousness of the insult.

    I can’t say for certain what Biology-online’s team have as their native languages but their owner, Keebali Media is in Isreal. Three of the 7 profiles on biology-online’s About page have locations: Canada, Romania and Turkey. None is in the U.S. English used socially by Quebecers can be pretty earthy. Google shows the webmaster who posted for Biology-Online over thee weekend as most likely Filipino.

    None of this is meant to minimize what happened to Dr. Lee.

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  14. 14. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 4:27 pm 10/15/2013

    @rkipling –

    I will allow this comment through, but as I mentioned above, I truly feel uncomfortable speculating on anything involving Danielle and her motivations/thoughts over and above what she explicitly stated, which is that she wanted people to focus on broader issues of underrepresentation in STEM. This is a second warning. I just really don’t want to discuss the specifics here in this comment thread or speculate on other bloggers, especially since I tried hard in this post to extend the implications of what I am saying well beyond the specific events of this weekend.


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  15. 15. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 4:37 pm 10/15/2013

    @GreyDog –

    As mentioned above, I would like to once again state that I feel uncomfortable analyzing anything specific involving the events of this weekend, which is why I tried to gear the topic of this post more broadly.

    That said, I think that cultural differences and “lost in translation” turns of phrase are one thing that can potentially contribute to “impact” differing from “intent.” I stand by what I said in the post, which is that there is never a situation where “good intents” should eradicate the need for negative impacts to be addressed. Presumably, if someone says the wrong thing because of a genuine cultural difference or misunderstanding, the perpetrator in that situation should be open to understanding why it was inappropriate to say that thing within the given cultural context, should recognize (and acknowledge) the impacts such that he/she would not say such a thing in the future, and would apologize for having done so.

    Thanks for reading,

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  16. 16. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 4:45 pm 10/15/2013


    As mentioned several times above, the idea is not to avoid saying anything that could ever potentially be negative. After all, everyone makes mistakes. The idea is that when this happens, it is not constructive or helpful to say, “Well I didn’t mean that!” and expect that that is a “good enough” response. It is important to focus on impacts — if you hurt someone, it is important to acknowledge that and make amends, regardless of intentions. Please see my Comment #8 above (addressed to AllenRBrewer) for more detail on this.

    Also, if you are a US politician, meaning that you have spent at least some significant amount of time in a US cultural context, I feel like you should be aware by now that saying the word “ni***rdly” is not a good idea — regardless of the technical etymology. There are plenty of other words that can (and should) be used. It’s hard to argue that someone would actually not have been able to see by now why that word might have been interpreted negatively. There are very few people who would know the “accurate” etymology of that word (I’m taking your word here that this is true — I had actually never heard that). So why even use it if it might only just hurt/offend people?

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  17. 17. rkipling 4:47 pm 10/15/2013

    That’s fine. That’s all I had to say about it. I understood you wouldn’t offer your personal view. It took a couple of days to for me pinpoint what troubled me about the video.

    Feel free to take my comments down as you think best. It isn’t important to me if anyone else reads them.

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  18. 18. rkipling 5:27 pm 10/15/2013

    Here is a link to the origin of waterbergs word in question. He/she appears to be correct. That is what I thought I remembered as well.

    Well, the link probably isn’t a good idea. It uses the word in the link. Just search Wikipedia for the origin. It is old Norse.

    It’s an interesting concept that we should be responsible for the misunderstandings or lack of education of others. Although I wouldn’t use that word in public for exactly that reason.

    I saw a local news cast where an African American councilman was indignant that a white councilman referred to money budgeted for someone’s pet project as “going into black hole.” At some point it becomes ridiculous.

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  19. 19. In-Tokyo 6:33 pm 10/15/2013

    @Melanie Tannenbaum -

    Excellent article!

    I do find it lacking, and actually telling, in your list of things meaningful and important — “Racism. Sexism. Cultural sensitivity. Prejudice. Implicit biases” — that religion is not included.

    What you are missing in your understanding from my point of view has to do with the very thing you are discussing AGENCY.

    An understanding of AGENCY is what neurotypical children are hardwired with to infer meaning. It’s how children learn what a tone of voice means and how to interact socially. See theory-of-mind development.

    In the big picture, people overuse this ability to try and explain nature. We create a GOD and infer intent.

    Being an atheist then, it may seem like I should support your view of removing agency from the picture.

    I disagree though and will not claim the “uncomfortable” I feel when politicians discuss their religious affiliations is not permissible because I know it is a human need to have shared values.

    Similarly, when my son calls my wife a b***c because he has to do his homework (being bilingual is a burden) and he cites the IMPACT on his life – I do listen to the impact but then state her motivation to help him get the skills he will need to get a job and food down the line.

    Agency/intent is part-and-parcel of how a normally developing human child learns social interaction. Now you suggest we take it out.

    The thing is, this whole “urban whore” name-calling episode you mentioned is surely counterproductive but don’t let things like that bother you. People do need a little thicker skin.

    I am an “anti-Christ” according to the bible. While I do believe religion is the outgrowth of social skills, the fact that I don’t believe in God makes me according to the Bible an “anti-Christ”.

    I personally think it is my responsibility to have some tolerance for things I dislike. Just like the way you tolerate the bitterness of vegetables (assuming you don’t like that flavor), or the way you ignore your fatigue when running long distance so as to keep going.

    If you understood human development better I think your view would change and I could agree with you more. Excellent article though.

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  20. 20. z34aa 6:57 pm 10/15/2013

    I agree that it is important for an Agent to focus on and acknowledge their impact, as well as make amends; it also seems to me equally important for the Patient to focus on and acknowledge the intention, and except the apology/restitution. If both parties handle their part properly the experience, which would have been a negative one, can become in most cases a positive one. Both parties will learn about each other, and hopefully about themselves, which can lead to positive introspection. Apologies and the acceptance of apologies are powerful social mechanisms that help in forming relationships between people. It is an acknowledgement that each person sees the other as having value.

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  21. 21. In-Tokyo 8:31 pm 10/15/2013

    Let’s put it this way, when Copernicus proposed his model of the Universe, the idea did impact on the Church. To focus only on that perceived negative impact and ignore the intent of understanding things correctly is just plain flat out indefensibly wrong.

    In a more modern context, why don’t you try Japanese society for a while where there is a high premium on NOT doing or saying anything that is perceived to have an undesirable emotional impact. Why don’t you look into whether that hinders intellectual freedom. Maybe you will see that the result is a greater difficulty to question things which may not be correct because doing so would have a negative impact on those who are holding an incorrect view.

    Men do tend to be spread more widely on the distribution of ability, but no body can talk about it. I’d prefer for the truth to be known but others prefer not to talk about something that may make them feel uncomfortable. This is not to say that there aren’t enough capable women scientist to make up 50% of STEM positions, of course and don’t say I am suggesting that.

    My motivation is to understand how those at the end of the distribution can be accommodated in an educational setting. See for example, “Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World: Strategies for Helping Bright, Quirky, Socially Awkward Children to Thrive at Home and at School”.

    To assess many people’s actions on only the impact serves to promote one group of people. To understand why some people behave in what you label as unsocial ways, you may need to actually understand what their motivation is.

    Do you know anyone with Asperger’s? Can you understand them if you don’t understand their intent/motivation. Once you do, you may be able to see why they are behaving in a way that may be having an undesirable impact on you.

    What you are saying though is to exclude people like that. What you are proposing is the same old tire cliche of be like us or be excluded.

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  22. 22. z34aa 11:34 pm 10/15/2013

    o In-Tokyo

    This is just my interpretation, and it may be wrong, but I don’t think it’s as much about trying not to offend people, though that is something you should try your best to do whenever possible, but empathizing with someone when you have done so, inadvertently or not. You don’t dismiss the other persons feelings just because they misunderstood, and you meant something else. This doesn’t mean you have to change your opinion or stop giving it, but acknowledge when your actions or word chose or tone or whatever, has caused hurt. It might be as simple as saying “I’m sorry my tone came across to you as condescending, I didn’t mean for it to be that way, I’ll try to watch it in the future. Is there anything in particular that gave you that impression?”

    As for people with Asperger’s, I am one of those people and the very intent vs impact thinking that Melanie Tannenbaum is talking about is something I had to learn if I was going to be able to function in this world. I couldn’t dismiss how people felt about my actions or what I said just because I didn’t mean it that way, if I did no one would want to have anything to do with me because I keep offending them!

    And again this is just what I got from what Melanie Tannenbaum wrote, but Ms Tannenbaum doesn’t seem to be addressing what the Patient should do or should not do in this situation, but only the Agent’s actions. I don’t think she is saying that people have carte blanche to not try and understand what the Agent’s real intentions were.

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  23. 23. stalder 1:07 am 02/10/2014

    I know I am entering this conversation very late. I just recently came across the post and comments. Very interesting and important. I’m a social psychologist, and just in case anyone is still reading, I wanted to offer some brief thoughts.

    1. Impact and intent are not orthogonal. Yes.
    2. Impact should matter to the offender. Yes.
    3. Being human is complicated and messy. Way yes.
    4. Impact should matter more than intent. No, not necessarily.

    I think impact should probably matter more than intent when physical harm has been caused or when a person’s rights or freedoms have been unfairly removed or withheld…

    But when someone takes offense so there is psychological harm (e.g., from another’s words), it gets so very tricky (as conveyed by some comments above, and too tricky to fully address in my comments). Precisely because impact and intent are not orthogonal, one sometimes can take offense entirely because one perceives intent to offend (even if one does not realize it). In such cases, if there was no intent to offend, then knowing that fact should logically remove the felt offense, which probably rarely happens, due in part to dissonance processes. Particularly once the offended expresses feeling offended, lack of intent to offend can cause dissonance, and those expressed feelings need to be justified (as one way to reduce dissonance and discomfort). The offended’s and his/her supporters’ interpretation of the offender’s explanations might thus be biased, to validate the offended’s feelings and reduce the dissonance.

    In other words, statements from the offended such as, “I don’t believe you didn’t intend it,” or “It doesn’t matter what you intended,” can sometimes (of course not always) represent simple dissonance reducers and not valid or thought-out arguments.

    Of course, the offended should be allowed to express their feelings. I praise those who can diplomatically stand up for themselves. And I don’t think it’s relevant if the offended is extremely sensitive (to blame sensitivity level for being offended can represent victim blaming).

    But if the offended is misinformed or has a misconception (sometimes subjective, I know), that seems very relevant. These offenders did not necessarily “mess up” or behave inappropriately. I think the offenders can still apologize for felt offenses and reflect on their behavior, but they shouldn’t necessarily change their behavior (as conveyed by z34aa in comment #22).

    In particular, the intent to share accurate information (diplomatically) should probably in most cases matter more than misinformed negative impact (as conveyed by In-Tokyo in comment #21). For example, sharing scientific findings can sometimes offend people whose everyday beliefs become contradicted. We scientists can apologize for thus upsetting people (and acknowledge the limitations of science), but we should probably not stop doing or sharing our research. Perhaps this example is outside the range intended by the initial post.

    Thank you, Ms. Tannenbaum, for the important and careful discussion here.

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