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


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.)

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

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

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