Insights into the value of intent could help explain how we judge someone's moral character

Updated: Sep 1

Research published by the University of Waterloo reveals new insights into how people view good and evil, which could help psychologists better understand how we value intent when we judge the actions of others.

'Good' and 'evil' are concepts that are engrained in our lives from a very early age. They are two terms that we use as opposing categories to decide between actions we morally agree with and those we morally oppose.

Although it might not be immediately obvious, this type of categorisation is a particularly powerful method of determining how we react to the actions of others. Understanding how we make this decision, and where the intent of an action plays a part, could provide valuable insights into human social psychology.

A new study by researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada aimed to do just that. Across five experiments, 2231 participants were tasked with reading short stories about a protagonist’s request to either a human or supernatural being. In each story, the request would be made to someone 'good' or 'evil', then participants were asked to rate the likelihood of this request being granted.

When the request was directed to someone good, likelihood ratings depended on whether the requester actually understood what they were requesting. In contrast, evil individuals were expected to grant requests regardless of the requester's end goal.

The results suggest that the biggest factor participants felt determined whether the request would be granted was the intention behind the request, rather than whether the request itself was a morally good or morally bad one.

Participants felt a morally good agent would be more likely to grant a morally good request that was made in earnest, instead of simply granting all morally good requests. For a morally bad agent, participants seemingly concluded that the intent behind a request held no value in how likely it was to be granted – instead whether it would further the agent's own goals or not carried more value.

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Ori Friedman, developmental psychology professor at the University Waterloo and lead author of the study, said:

“Our results suggest people expect good agents will be sensitive to intentions behind requests whereas they expect evil individuals will be relatively insensitive to these intentions. These findings shape people’s expectations about requests directed both to regular humans and to supernatural agents.

“This research tells us something very interesting about how people view good and evil, which is that people don’t just think that evil agents focus exclusively on causing harm. Instead, people relate evil to being indifferent and to not caring about what people want.

“It also suggests that people think moral goodness is about more than producing good outcomes. People also see moral goodness as being connected with caring about what people want and intend.”

The value of intent

It’s easy to think of an example of someone you see as morally good doing something bad, and that action not making them morally bad. That’s because, as this study demonstrates, the intent behind the action is important to us. Your friend breaking your laptop because they accidentally knocked a glass of water over it, is very different to your friend deliberately pouring a glass of water over it.

Again, it is easy to think of examples of behaviour seen as morally bad despite resulting in morally good outcomes, as the intent behind them wasn’t good. Examples can be seen frequently on social media when extravagant acts of charity are uploaded and shared. Even though the action of helping other people is morally good, a common criticism of these videos is the intention behind filming the act, which many consider as increasing one's profile and gaining followers. The intention therefore is not morally good, sullying the act.

Read the abstract for the full paper here.

Written by Conor D'Andrade

News reporter for Talking Mental Health