Data Exposure and the Knobe Effect

For this post, I chose an article named Intentionality and Morality in Human Judgement by Sudhakar Nuti. In this article, he discusses the Knobe effect, a phenomenon where people tend to judge that a bad side effect is caused intentionally, whereas a good side effect is not intentional (Feltz 2016). Nuti explains how Josua Knobe proved through a survey that subjects are inclined to connect intentionality with negative side effects. My question is, can the nature of the information that people are exposed to justify the Knobe effect?
These are the following scenarios:

The CEO of a company is told, “We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, but it will also hurt the environment.” The company starts the new program and the environment is harmed. In an alternate scenario, the CEO is told that the same profit-increasing program will help the environment. Surely enough, upon implementation, the program helps the environment.

Joshua Knobe, an Assistant Professor at Yale, conducted a survey asking whether people believed the CEO had intentionally harmed or helped the environment. While the actual sample demographics for this particular survey are not specified in the article or anywhere on the web, these results have been replicated in other studies with multiple side effects, cultures, and ages obtaining similar results (Feltz 2006). About 82% of the participants said that the CEO would intentionally harm the environment, while only 23% said that the CEO would intentionally help the environment. This large difference between perceptions served as the explanation for the Knobe effect.

Image by Joshua Knobe

Knobe suggested that instead of looking at intentionality as two different choices, it should be thought of as a gradient. In the diagram above, the dot and its relative position to the x-axis allow us to locate the intentionality of the side effect. This diagram, as explained by the previous percentages, indicates that people believe that harming side-effects are most likely to be intentional while helping side-effects are consider to be most likely unintentional. (Ideally, the dots in the diagram should have confidence intervals and percentages, but this is just a relative model.) Sudhakar Nuti provides evidence of how these decisions are not based on emotion. He incorporates the work of Liane Young and her studies in ventromedial prefrontal cortex patients to prove that the Knobe effect “isn`t actually due to people`s emotions getting in the way.” Through the rest of his article, he suggests that our understanding of the world is “colored by our moral judgment” but not by our sentiment. Nuti`s article is very open-ended; it suggests that “there is now a search for a deeper theory that explains how moral judgments affect our different conceptions of the world”, but it offers no conclusion. For this reason, I want to suggest that the idea of priming we discussed while reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman can help explain the Knobe effect.

Priming is the idea that cues in our environment may have significant effects on behavior. When I first read the two CEO scenarios my mind went directly to corrupt Peruvian politicians and media examples of developed countries with overwhelming carbon dioxide pollution. The Knobe effect is the phenomenon of people believing that negative side effects are always intentional, but how can we expect otherwise when most of the news (and headlines) we are exposed to carry a negative connotation. I could not find the exact numbers on how many positive versus negative news do media sources comment on, but I did go through a couple of news pages and noticed that the majority of their headlines contained threatening words. I also came across other articles that aim to talk about why bad news dominates the headlines and how people pay more attention to them do to negativity bias.

While news priming may be only a small factor behind the reason that most people believe it is more likely to intentionally harm than to help, I think that it is an area that would be interesting to explore. In order to test whether the Knobe effect has a relationship to priming, I would expose participants to either positive, negative, or varied news to see if this changed the numbers of participants that say that the CEO would intentionally help the environment. I think that the study of data exposure and its effect on behavioral perceptions is an area that this particular study would benefit a lot from. If we are more exposed to news about ordinary people doing incredible things, we might even reconsider the morality of Knobe`s CEO. The nature of the information that we are exposed to can deeply impact our actions, why shouldn`t it affect the way we perceive morality in other people?

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