Perceived intent motivates people to magnify observed harms

Daniel L. Ames, Susan T. Fiske

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Scopus citations


Existing moral psychology research commonly explains certain phenomena in terms of a motivation to blame. However, this motivation is not measured directly, but rather is inferred from other measures, such as participants' judgments of an agent's blameworthiness. The present paper introduces new methods for assessing this theoretically important motivation, using tools drawn from animal-model research. We test these methods in the context of recent "harm-magnification" research, which shows that people often overestimate the damage caused by intentional (versus unintentional) harms. A preliminary experiment exemplifies this work and also rules out an alternative explanation for earlier harm-magnification results. Exp. 1 asks whether intended harm motivates blame or merely demonstrates the actor's intrinsic blameworthiness. Consistent with a motivational interpretation, participants freely chose blaming, condemning, and punishing over other appealing tasks in an intentional-harm condition, compared with an unintentional-harm condition. Exp. 2 also measures motivation but with converging indicators of persistence (effort, rate, and duration) in blaming. In addition to their methodological contribution, these studies also illuminate people's motivational responses to intentional harms. Perceived intent emerges as catalyzing a motivated social cognitive process related to social prediction and control.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3599-3605
Number of pages7
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number12
StatePublished - Mar 24 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Blame
  • Harm
  • Intent
  • Morality
  • Motivation


Dive into the research topics of 'Perceived intent motivates people to magnify observed harms'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this