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In many ways, Knobe is the closest thing experimental philosophy has to a rock star. Since last year, he’s been an essay contributor to the New York Times. An admirer from Australia maintains a Joshua Knobe fan page on Facebook. And a phenomenon bears his name: The Knobe Effect, derived from an experiment of his, is frequently cited to explain the effectiveness of negative political advertising.

Conducted in 2003, the experiment examined people’s perception of intentionality based on their opinions about two scenarios. In the first scenario, a business executive is told that a new product will increase profits but harm the environment. He responds that he doesn’t care about the environment, just profits. The program is implemented, profits go up and the environment suffers. When asked if the executive intentionally harmed the environment, 82 percent of respondents answered yes.

Scenario No. 2 is the same except for one key detail: The word “hurt” is replaced with “help.” Again, the executive says he doesn’t care about the environment. The program goes on, profits rise, and this time the environment benefits. But when asked if the executive intentionally helped the environment, only 23 percent of respondents said yes. So the Knobe Effect holds that people are more likely to assign blame for things that go wrong than to give credit for things that go right, a gap Knobe has spent the past eight years working to explain.

Why should the results of an action have a bearing on intentionality? And when it comes to questions of character, why do we tend to give more weight to negativity? Why does it sometimes happen that a single misdeed in a lifetime of otherwise exemplary behavior can destroy a reputation? (Think of how one racial slur can get someone branded a racist.)


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