Is your boss quick to blame you when something goes wrong but slow in giving credit for a job well done?
New research from Duke University helps explain why people are biased towards treating negative actions as intentional but positive actions as unintentional.
The researchers found that people use two different mechanisms to judge how intentional an action was.
If the action produced a negative effect, participants were more likely to draw on brain areas involved in processing emotion, in particular, the amygdala. On the other hand, for positive outcomes people relied less on emotion and more on statistics. That is, they thought about how often people in a particular situation would behave in a similar way.
The team used an example: The CEO knew the plan would harm the environment, but he started the plan solely to increase profits. Did the CEO intentionally harm the environment?
As many as 82 per cent responded that the CEO was deliberate. When the researchers replaced the single word “harm” with “help” in the scenario, however, only 23 per cent deemed the CEO’s actions intentional.
“There’s no logical reason why we would call something intentional, just because it causes a bad outcome as opposed to a good outcome,” said corresponding author professor Scott Huettel.
“Intentionality implies purpose on the part of the person, and that should be there for good as much as it is for bad. But it’s not,” Huettel added.
In the example of the CEO who makes a profit and also helps the environment, participants were more likely to say that because CEOs commonly aim to make money; helping the environment was an unintentional side effect.
The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.