Faculty Scholarly Dissemination Grants


Expectations and Reflection Explain the Knobe Effect




College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Date Range



Recent work in moral psychology has focused on the Knobe effect, whic has found that people attribute a host of psychological states and moral concepts asymmetrically for an agent s side effects. For instance, if a CEO starts a program with a side effect of harming the environment, participants are willing to say that CEO intentionally affected the environmental. If instead the program helps the environment, particpants are less willing to say the side effect was intentional. Building on Alfano, Beebe, & Robinson (forthcoming), we argue that the key to understanding the Knobe effect is expectation (in)congruence. Our thesis asserts: a description of the psychological conditions under which the effect can be observed; a link between these conditions and norm (in)congruence; and a rational reconstruction of the conditions and the link. We claim that people are more inclined to attribute a wide variety of mental attitudes to an agent who produces an effect contrary to expectations. This claim is supported by new experimental finding that expectations mediate mental-state attributions in Knobe cases. Unlike previous studies, our experiment asked participants what they expected the agent to do before learning what he decided. Statistical analysis reveals that these expectations explain the variance in subsequent attributions of mental attitudes. Further analysis reveals that expectations are influenced by salient norms. Our vignettes have two competing norms, both of which cannot be satisfied. In different conditions, an interlocutor makes none, one, or both norms salient, which influences both expectations and mental state attributions.

Conference Name

Experiments on Ethical Dilemmas

Conference Location

London, England

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