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Posts Tagged ‘Knobe effect’

This paper by Knobe and Doris is pretty interesting.

Side-effect asymmetry (Knobe effect): 

Knobe (2003a) ran a simple experiment that addresses this issue. Each subject was randomly assigned to one of two conditions. Subjects in the ‘harm condition’ received the following vignette:

The vice-president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, ‘We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment.’ The chairman of the board answered, ‘I don’t care at all about harming the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.’ They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was harmed.

Subjects in the ‘help condition’ received a vignette that was almost exactly the same, except that the word ‘harm’ was replaced with ‘help.’ The vignette thus became:

The vice-president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, ‘We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, and it will also help the environment.’ The chairman of the board answered, ‘I don’t care at all about helping the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.’ They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was helped.

As expected, people’s moral judgments showed a marked asymmetry. Most subjects in the harm condition said that the chairman deserved blame, but very few subjects in the help condition said that the chairman deserved praise.

This illustrates a bias that many of us possess, but wouldn’t easily recognize. 

According to Knobe and Doris:

There appears to be a general principle according to which people are given blame for bad side-effects but are not given praise for good side-effects.

 Emotion asymmetry

Pizarro, Uhlmann and Salovey (2003) set out to determine whether the impact of emotion might depend on the moral status of the behavior itself. They began by constructing a series of vignettes about agents who perform behaviors as a result of overwhelming emotion. Some of the vignettes featured morally good behaviors; others featured morally bad behaviors. Here is an example of a vignette with a morally good behavior:

Because of his overwhelming and uncontrollable sympathy, Jack impulsively gave the homeless man his only jacket even though it was freezing outside.

And here is one with a morally bad behavior:

Because of his overwhelming and uncontrollable anger, Jack impulsively smashed the window of the car parked in front of him because it was parked too close to his.

For each of these vignettes, the researchers then constructed a contrast case in which the agent acted calmly and deliberately. So, for example, the contrast case for our morally bad behavior was:

Jack calmly and deliberately smashed the window of the car parked in front of him because it was parked too close to his.

When the researchers gave these vignettes to subjects, they found a striking asymmetry. Subjects gave the agent considerably less blame for morally bad behaviors when those behaviors were the result of overwhelming emotion than when they were the result of calm deliberation. But for morally good behaviors, there was no corresponding effect.

They also discuss intention/action asymmetry and severity asymmetry.

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