Research

García Olier, J. & Kneer, M. The Knobe effect as an instance of a Severity effect. Poster presentation at the Society for Philosophy and Psychology 2021 annual meeting—SPP 2021 Poster Prize WinnerDraft. Poster.

Standard research on the 'side-effect effect' or 'Knobe effect', has shown that foreseen harmful side effects are judged intentional and helpful side effects (all other things remaining equal) are judged unintentional. Research conducted by Kneer & Bourgeois-Gironde (2017), however, suggests that empirical research on the Knobe effect might have inappropriately focused but on two data points out of many. The scholars found that people’s ascriptions of intentionality are susceptible not only to the Knobe effect but to a ‘severity effect’: the more harmful the side effect, the more inclined people are to say that it was intentionally brought about. Rather than being of binary nature, the relation between outcomes and intentionality ascriptions appears to be a matter of degrees. Problematically, however, the research on the severity effect suffers from a shortcoming: focus has been placed on intentionality ascriptions for graded harmful outcomes; graded helpful outcomes have not been tested. To address the former lacuna and provide a clearer understanding of the relation between outcomes and intentionality ascriptions, we conducted a study exploring attributions of intentionality (and knowledge) across a range of different outcomes: very bad, somewhat bad, neutral, somewhat good and very good. The results of two preregistered experiments suggest that the relation between intentionality ascriptions and outcomes is indeed of graded nature and that outcome valence plays a role in defining the strength of such relation. The findings, we further argue, provide particular support to blame-driven bias accounts of the phenomenon underlying the Knobe effect.

Güver, L. & Kneer, M. (in preparation). Causation and Norms. Presentation at the Society for Philosophy and Psychology 2021 conference—nominated for the William James PrizeLink. Slide show

There is an ever-growing body of psychological literature that details the influence of norms on ordinary causal judgement. The practical relevance of this line of research culminates in the law, as both norm-violations and causal judgements constitute the bedrock upon which criminal and tort cases are built. Two accounts give competing explanations of this phenomenon. On the bias view, participants blame the norm-violating agent, thereby forming a negative picture of her and, in an act of backwards-rationalisation, labelling her as more causal. On the responsibility view, the ordinary concept of causation is simply normatively valenced, and participants rightfully label the norm-violating agent as more causal. In our present paper, we show that the violation of norms which do not play into moral responsibility—such as entirely silly norms—nevertheless have a pronounced impact on causal ascription, thus buttressing the bias view. From the perspective of the law, these findings raise a multitude of worries.

Zehnder, M. A. & Kneer, M. (in preparation). Affect-driven ascription of mens rea: legal experts and laypeople surveyed. Presentation at the SPP 2021 conference. Slide show

An affect-driven information processing might explain why professional judges are sensitive to the outcome severity in their ascription of intention (Kneer & Bourgeois-Gironde, 2017), although culpable mental states (mentes reae) should be judged independently from the forbidden act (actus reus) and its outcome. Similar processes could occur if judges or juries get confronted with other affect-laden information, like the suspect's moral character, which should neither be considered in ascribing mens rea (cf. e.g., Nadler, 2012). We report the first empirical investigation into the affective-mediated ascription of mens rea (recklessness and negligence) made by legal experts. We conducted two studies and found that laypeople and legal experts reported stronger negative affect, ascribed more blame to the suspect, and were more willing to ascribe inculpating states of mind if the suspect had a bad moral character than if the suspect had a good moral character. Interestingly, after evaluating further evidence, the character had bigger effects on the ascription of blame and mens rea in the study with experts than in the study with laypeople, although experts report lower levels of initial blame and negative affect. Furthermore, we found significant indirect effects for character via negative affect on all dependent variables in the sample with laypeople, but not in the expert sample. 

Kneer, M. & Skoczeń, I. (under review). Outcome Effects, Moral Luck and the Hindsight Bias. Link. Local copy. 

In a series of ten preregistered experiments (N=2043), we investigate the effect of outcome valence on judgments of probability, negligence, and culpability – a phenomenon sometimes labelled moral (and legal) luck. We found that harmful outcomes, when contrasted with neutral outcomes, lead to increased perceived probability of harm ex post, and consequently to increased attribution of negligence and culpability. Rather than simply postulating a hindsight bias (as is common), we employ a variety of empirical means to demonstrate that the outcome-driven asymmetry across perceived probabilities constitutes a systematic cognitive distortion. We then explore three distinct strategies to alleviate the hindsight bias and its downstream effects on mens rea and culpability ascriptions. Not all are successful, but at least some prove promising. They should, we argue, be taken into consideration in criminal jurisprudence, where distortions due to the hindsight bias are likely considerable and deeply disconcerting.

Kneer, M. (2021). Reasonableness on the Clapham Omnibus: Exploring the outcome-sensitive folk concept of reasonable. In Bystranowski, P, Janik, B. & Prochnicki, M. (Eds.). Judicial Decision-Making: Integrating Empirical and Theoretical Perspectives. Springer Nature. Link. Local copy. 

This paper presents a series of studies (total N=579) which demonstrate that folk judgments concerning the reasonableness of decisions and actions depend strongly on whether they engender positive or negative consequences. A particular decision is deemed more reasonable in retrospect when it produces beneficial consequences than when it produces harmful consequences, even if the situation in which the decision was taken and the epistemic circumstances of the agent are held fixed across conditions. This finding is worrisome for the law, where the reasonable person standard plays a prominent role. The legal concept of reasonableness is outcome-insensitive: whether the defendant acted in a reasonable fashion or not depends exclusively on her context of action, no matter how things play out. Folk judgments of reasonableness are thus inconsistent with the legal concept of reasonableness. Problematically, in common law jurisdictions, the decision whether a defendant’s behavior was reasonable or not is frequently (though not necessarily) delegated to a lay jury.

In this paper, I investigate: (1) to what extent do folk ascriptions of lying differ between casual and courtroom contexts? (2) to what extent does motive (reason) to lie influence ascriptions of trust, mental states, and lying judgments? (3) to what extent are lying judgments consistent with previous ascriptions of communicated content? Follow- ing the Supreme Court’s Bronston judgment, I expect: (1) averaged lying judgments to be similar in casual and courtroom contexts; (2) motive to lie to influence levels of trust, mental states ascriptions, and patterns of lying judgments; (3) retrospective judgments of lying, after being presented with the state of the world, to be incon- sistent with previous judgments of communicated content: participants hold the protagonist responsible for content she did not communicate. I performed a survey experiment on the Qualtrics platform. Participants were recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk (N=630). I employed standard Likert scales and forced-choice questions. I found that: (1) average lying judgments are similar in casual and court- room contexts; (2) motive to lie decreases trust ascription and increases lying judg- ment; (3) judgments of lying are inconsistent with previous judgments of communi- cated content: participants hold the protagonist responsible for content they did not communicate (effect size of the difference d=.69). Perjury ascriptions are incon- sistent. The Supreme Court’s worries expressed in the Bronston judgment are well founded. This article helps reforming jury instructions in perjury cases.

Kneer, M. (2021). Success and Knowledge in Action: Saving Anscombe’s Account of Intentionality. In Tadeusz Ciecierski and Paweł Grabarczyk (Eds.). Context Dependence in Language, Action, and Cognition (pp. 131-154). De Gruyter. Link. Local copy.

According to Anscombe, acting intentionally entails knowledge in action. This thesis has been near-universally rejected due to a well-known counterexample by Davidson: a man intending to make ten legible carbon copies might not believe with confidence, and hence not know, that he will succeed. If he does, however, his action surely counts as intentional. Damaging as it seems, an even more powerful objection can be levelled against Anscombe: while acting, there is as yet no fact of the matter as to whether the agent will succeed. Since his belief that he will is not yet true while his action is in progress, he cannot possibly know that he is indeed bringing about the intended goal. Knowledge in action is not only unnecessary for intentional action, it seems, but-at least as regards success-bound types of action-impossible to attain in the first place.

Hannikainen, I. R., et. al. (forthcoming)Legal Essentialism: Cross-Cultural Evidence. Cognition Link. Draft

Despite pervasive variation in the content of laws, legal theorists and anthropologists have often argued that all laws share certain abstract features and even speculated that law may be a human universal. In the present report, we contribute cross-cultural data to this debate: Are there essential features of law? Participants in ten different countries (N = 2844) were asked whether there could be laws that violate certain procedural principles (e.g., laws applied retrospectively or unintelligible laws), and also whether there are any such laws—in a between-subjects design. Confirming our pre-registered prediction, people reported that such laws cannot exist, but also (paradoxically) that there are such laws. These results document a tendency toward legal essentialism across cultures and languages: universal beliefs about the nature of law which defy people's conception of how legal systems function in practice.

García Olier, J. & Kneer, M. The Knobe effect as an instance of a Severity effect. Draft. Poster.

Standard research on the 'side-effect effect' or 'Knobe effect', has shown that foreseen harmful side effects are judged intentional and helpful side effects (all other things remaining equal) are judged unintentional. Research conducted by Kneer & Bourgeois-Gironde (2017), however, suggests that empirical research on the Knobe effect might have inappropriately focused but on two data points out of many. The scholars found that people’s ascriptions of intentionality are susceptible not only to the Knobe effect but to a ‘severity effect’: the more harmful the side effect, the more inclined people are to say that it was intentionally brought about. Rather than being of binary nature, the relation between outcomes and intentionality ascriptions appears to be a matter of degrees. Problematically, however, the research on the severity effect suffers from a shortcoming: focus has been placed on intentionality ascriptions for graded harmful outcomes; graded helpful outcomes have not been tested. To address the former lacuna and provide a clearer understanding of the relation between outcomes and intentionality ascriptions, we conducted a study exploring attributions of intentionality (and knowledge) across a range of different outcomes: very bad, somewhat bad, neutral, somewhat good and very good. The results of two preregistered experiments suggest that the relation between intentionality ascriptions and outcomes is indeed of graded nature and that outcome valence plays a role in defining the strength of such relation. The findings, we further argue, provide particular support to blame-driven bias accounts of the phenomenon underlying the Knobe effect.

Skoczeń, I. & Kneer, M. Renouncing the attempt versus perpetration distinction. Full abstractPoster

The mental state of the perpetrator is decisive for criminal legal responsibility. However, there is one exception, inconsistent with the remaining rules. Imagine that John lights a long fuse in order to burn his enemy’s house. After a short while, John has second thoughts. Consequently, he tries to stamp out the fuse. There are two possible outcomes. The first outcome is lucky: John stamps out the fuse easily and the enemy survives. However, it could also be that a strong wind prevents John from stamping out the fuse. As a result, John’s enemy dies anyway. In both cases, the lucky and the unlucky one, John has the same quality of the will: he initially intends a criminal outcome, yet later, on second thoughts, desists from his criminal intent and does everything he can to prevent the criminal outcome. While his actions are intentional, the outcome is accidental as it is not fully under John’s control – it is subject to causal luck. In many legal systems (except for ex. Poland as well as the states of Arizona and Hawaii), the lucky John commits an attempt and can receive a substantial mitigation of punishment on the basis of the renunciation defense, while the unlucky John gets fully punished. Yet is it fair to hold an agent responsible for outcomes not under the agent’s control? Since in common law systems responsibility decisions are taken by a jury, consulting folk intuitions is necessary to answer the question. In a series of experiments (total N = 479), we investigate folk intuitions concerning John’s case. The influence of outcome on responsibility ascriptions is mitigated in the within subjects design as compared to the between subjects design (effect size of the difference in between subjects d = .87; versus effect in within subjects d = .35). We conclude that reflective folk intuitions are Kantian with respect to the renunciation case and thus the legal rules should be reformulated consistently with the remaining rules on legal responsibility, as fairness intuitions align with the Kantian view.

Frisch, L., Kneer, M., Krueger, J., & Ullrich, J. (under review). Do You Feel the Same? The Effect of Outcome Severity on Moral Judgment and Interpersonal Goals of Perpetrators, Victims, and Bystanders. Link. Draft

When two actors have exactly the same mental states but one happens to harm another person (unlucky actor) and the other one does not (lucky actor), the latter elicits milder moral judgment among bystanders. We hypothesized that the social role from which transgressions are perceived would moderate this outcome effect. In three preregistered experiments (N = 950), we randomly assigned participants to imagine and respond to moral scenarios as actor (i.e., perpetrator), victim, or bystander. The results revealed highly similar outcome effects on moral judgment across social roles. However, as predicted, the social role moderated the strength of the outcome effect on interpersonal goals pertaining to agency and communion. Although in agreement about the blameworthiness of lucky and unlucky actors, victims’ agency and communion were more sensitive to the outcome severity than perpetrators’ agency and communion, with bystanders’ outcome sensitivity falling in between. Outcome severity affected agency and communion directly instead of being mediated by moral judgment. We discuss the possibility that outcome severity raises normative expectations regarding interaction in a transgression’s aftermath that are unrelated to moral considerations.

Kneer, M. & Machery, E. (2019). No luck for moral luck. Cognition, 182, 331–348. Link. Local copy

Moral philosophers and psychologists often assume that people judge morally lucky and morally unlucky agents differently, an assumption that stands at the heart of the Puzzle of Moral Luck. We examine whether the asymmetry is found for reflective intuitions regarding wrongness, blame, permissibility, and punishment judg- ments, whether people’s concrete, case-based judgments align with their explicit, abstract principles regarding moral luck, and what psychological mechanisms might drive the effect. Our experiments produce three findings: First, in within-subjects experiments favorable to reflective deliberation, the vast majority of people judge a lucky and an unlucky agent as equally blameworthy, and their actions as equally wrong and permissible. The philosophical Puzzle of Moral Luck, and the challenge to the very possibility of systematic ethics it is frequently taken to engender, thus simply do not arise. Second, punishment judgments are significantly more outcome- dependent than wrongness, blame, and permissibility judgments. While this constitutes evidence in favor of current Dual Process Theories of moral judgment, the latter need to be qualified: punishment and blame judgments do not seem to be driven by the same process, as is commonly argued in the literature. Third, in between-subjects experiments, outcome has an effect on all four types of moral judgments. This effect is mediated by negligence ascriptions and can ultimately be explained as due to differing probability ascriptions across cases.

Kneer, M. (2017). Perspective and Epistemic State Ascriptions. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 9(2), 313–341. Link. Local copy

This article explores whether perspective taking has an impact on the ascription of epistemic states. To do so, a new method is introduced which incites participants to imagine themselves in the position of the protagonist of a short vignette and to judge from her perspective. In a series of experiments (total N=1980), perspective proves to have a significant impact on belief ascriptions, but not on knowledge ascriptions. For belief, perspective is further found to moderate the epistemic side-effect effect significantly. It is hypothesized that the surprising findings are driven by the special epistemic authority we enjoy in assessing our own belief states, which does not extend to the assessment of our own knowledge states.

Kneer, M. & Bourgeois-Gironde, S. (2017). Mens rea ascription, expertise and outcome effects: Professional judges surveyed. Cognition, 169, 139–146. Link. Local Copy.

A coherent practice of mens rea (‘guilty mind’) ascription in criminal law presupposes a concept of mens rea which is insensitive to the moral valence of an action’s outcome. For instance, an assessment of whether an agent harmed another person intentionally should be unaffected by the severity of harm done. Ascriptions of intentionality made by laypeople, however, are subject to a strong outcome bias. As demonstrated by the Knobe effect, a knowingly incurred negative side effect is standardly judged intentional, whereas a positive side effect is not. We report the first empirical investigation into intentionality ascriptions made by professional judges, which finds (i) that professionals are sensitive to the moral valence of outcome type, and (ii) that the worse the outcome, the higher the propensity to ascribe intentionality. The data shows the intentionality ascriptions of professional judges to be inconsistent with the concept of mens rea supposedly at the foundation of criminal law.