Reconstructing the side-effect effect: A new way of understanding how moral considerations drive intentionality asymmetries

Sean M. Laurent, Brandon J. Reich, Jeanine L.M. Skorinko

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


People typically apply the concept of intentionality to actions directed at achieving desired outcomes. For example, a businessperson might intentionally start a program aimed at increasing company profits. However, if starting the program leads to a foreknown and harmful side effect (e.g., to the environment), the side effect is frequently labeled as intentional even though it was not specifically intended or desired. In contrast, positive side effects (e.g., helping the environment) are rarely labeled as intentional. One explanation of this side-effect effect-that harmful (but not helpful) side effects are labeled as intentional- is that moral considerations influence whether people view actions as intentional or not, implying that bad outcomes are perceived as more intentional than good outcomes. The present research, however, shows that people redefine questions about intentionality to focus on agents' foreknowledge in harming cases and on their lack of desire or intention in helpful cases, suggesting that the same intentionality question is being interpreted differently as a function of side effect valence. Consistent with this, removing foreknowledge lowers the frequency of labeling harming as intentional without affecting whether people label helping as intentional. Likewise, increasing agents' desire to help or avoid harming increases rates of labeling helping as intentional without affecting rates of labeling harming as intentional. In summary, divergent decisions to label side effects as intentional or not appear to reflect differences in the criteria people use to evaluate each case, resulting in different interpretations of what questions about intentionality are asking.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1747-1766
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • General Psychology
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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