Intentional Harms Are Worse, Even When They're Not

October 2013
with Daniel L. Ames, Psychological Science Vol.24 Issue 9, pp.1755-1762.

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People and societies seek to combat harmful events. However, because resources are limited, every wrong righted leaves another wrong left unchecked. Responses must therefore be calibrated to the magnitude of the harm. One underappreciated factor that affects this calibration may be people’s oversensitivity to intent. Across a series of studies, people saw intended harms as worse than unintended harms, even though the two harms were identical. This harm-magnification effect occurred for both subjective and monetary estimates of harm, and it remained when participants were given incentives to be accurate. The effect was fully mediated by blame motivation. People may therefore focus on intentional harms to the neglect of unintentional (but equally damaging) harms.