When an action has bad impact, how you think about that impact can play a significant role in triggering and escalating blame and conflict. And despite how rational you believe you are, there’s a thinking error that can lead you down a very irrational path. It’s called the Knobe Effect.
Cognitive (thinking) errors are thought patterns that cause you to reach conclusions that are skewed, inaccurate, and/or irrational. These errors can create and reinforce beliefs you have about yourself, another person, or situation. They bolster the righteous mind and can be fodder for conflict that otherwise might not have existed or escalated.
One such thinking error is the Knobe Effect, named after experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe. In 2003 Knobe presented research subjects with two scenarios. This was the first:
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.
Did the chairman of the board intentionally harm the environment?
The second scenario changed just one verb and its variants — “harm” became “help”:
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 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.
Did the chairman of the board intentionally help the environment?
That single word change had quite an impact on responses. In the first scenario, 82% of respondents said yes, the CEO intentionally harmed the environment. But in the second scenario just 23% of respondents said yes, the CEO intentionally helped the environment.
That doesn’t seem very logical, does it? If the environment was harmed, most participants decided the chairman intentionally caused the damage. But if the environment was helped, most participants decided the chairman did not intentionally caused the good impact.
The Knobe Effect proposes that people seem considerably more willing to say that a side-effect was brought about intentionally when they regard the side-effect as bad than when they regard it as good.
In subsequent studies by Knobe and others, the effect has been observed across other languages than English, in cultures outside the U.S., and in children as young as four. The roots of the Knobe Effect are more elusive, however, with myriad theories to explain the assymetry in responses.
Recently, a team of Duke researchers offered neurological insights about the Knobe Effect, concluding that people actually use two different mechanisms to judge action, effect, and intention.
If the action produced a negative effect it was more likely to activate the amygdala, a pair of brain structures associated with processing negative emotions. But if the action produced a positive effect, people relied less on the emotional centers of their brain and more on rational reasoning of a statistical nature. They reasoned that because board chairs commonly aim to make money, helping the environment was an unintentional side-effect.
As with other thinking errors, forewarned is forearmed. When you find yourself casting blame quickly or concluding someone did something with bad impact on purpose (or you observe others doing so), you would do well to pause and challenge that thinking.
I know that when I feel most sure, that’s when I need to be most cautious. In conflict and blame, irrational certainty feeds the righteous mind and helps keep us good and stuck.
To read more about the Knobe Effect, try these: