Perceived intent motivates people to magnify observed harms

March 2015
with Daniel Ames; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 112(12)

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This paper examines how detecting harmful intent creates downstream consequences for assessing damage, magnifying its cost. If intentional harms seem worse, society may spend more money on them than on objectively more damaging unintentional harms or on naturally occurring harms. Why might this occur? Various psychological theories identify the cause as motivation; however, the presence of this motivation has been inferred indirectly. Drawing on animal-model research, we present more direct evidence for blame motivation, and discuss how it may help to explain the magnification of intentional harms. This approach acknowledges the nonrational biases in damage estimates and potential policy priorities.