The Journal of Ethics

, Volume 17, Issue 4, pp 305–330 | Cite as

Chairmen, Cocaine, and Car Crashes: The Knobe Effect as an Attribution Error

  • Hanno Sauer
  • Tom Bates


In this paper, we argue that the so-called Knobe-Effect constitutes an error. There is now a wealth of data confirming that people are highly prone to what has also come to be known as the ‘side-effect effect’. That is, when attributing psychological states—such as intentionality, foreknowledge, and desiring—as well as other agential features—such as causal control—people typically do so to a greater extent when the action under consideration is evaluated negatively. There are a plethora of models attempting to account for this effect. We hold that the central question of interest is whether the effect represents a competence or an error in judgment. We offer a systematic argument for the claim that the burden of proof regarding this question is on the competence theorist. We sketch an account, based on the notion of the reactive attitudes, that can accommodate both the idea that these sorts of judgments are fundamentally normative and that they often constitute errors.


Moral responsibility Intentionality Experimental philosophy Joshua Knobe 



We would like to thank Pauline Kleingeld, Markus Schlosser, Frank Hindriks, Hichem Naar and audiences at Tilburg University, Eindhoven University, and at the Fourth Annual Dutch Conference in Practical Philosophy for helpful discussions. We are also grateful to two anonymous referees for comments. Research for this paper was funded by The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).


  1. Adams, F., and A. Steadman. 2004. Intentional action in ordinary language: Core concept or pragmatic understanding? Analysis 64(2): 73–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Alicke, M.D. 1992. Culpable causation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 63(3): 368–378.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Alicke, M.D. 2000. Culpable control and the psychology of blame. Psychological Bulletin 126(4): 556–574.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Beebe, J.R., and W. Buckwalter. 2010. The epistemic side-effect effect. Mind & Language 25(4): 474–498.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Berker, S. 2009. The normative insignificance of neuroscience. Philosophy & Public Affairs 37(4): 293–329.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cova, F., and H. Naar. 2012. Side-effect effect without side effects: The pervasive impact of moral considerations on judgments of intentionality. Philosophical Psychology 25(6): 837–854.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cushman, F., J. Knobe, et al. 2008. Moral appraisals affect doing/allowing judgments. Cognition 108: 281–289.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Driver, J. 2008. Attributions of causation and moral responsibility. In Moral psychology, vol. 2, ed. W. Sinnott-Armstrong, 423–439. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  9. Foot, P. 1967. The problem of abortion and the doctrine of double effect. Oxford Review 5: 5–15.Google Scholar
  10. Greene, J.D., B.D. Sommerville, et al. 2001. An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment. Science 293: 2105–2108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Haider-Markl, D.P., and M.R. Joslyn. 2008. Beliefs about the origin of homosexuality and support for gay rights. Public Opinion Quarterly 72(2): 291–310.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Hindriks, F. 2008. Intentional action and the praise-blame asymmetry. The Philosophical Quarterly 58(233): 630–641.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hindriks, F. (forthcoming). Normativity in action. How to explain the knobe effect and its relatives. Mind & Language. Google Scholar
  14. Holton, R. 2010. Norms and the Knobe effect. Analysis 70(3): 417–424.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Jones, E.E., and V.A. Harris. 1967. The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 3(1): 1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Jones, E.E., J.M. Riggs, et al. 1979. Observer bias in the attitude attribution paradigm: Effects of time and information order. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37: 1230–1238.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Kahneman, D., A. Tversky, et al. (eds.). 1982. Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Knobe, J. 2003. Intentional action and side effects in ordinary language. Analysis 63: 190–193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Knobe, J. 2006. The concept of intentional action: A case study in the uses of folk psychology. Philosophical Studies 130: 203–231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Knobe, J. 2007. Reason explanation in folk psychology. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 31: 90–107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Knobe, J. 2010. Person as scientist, person as moralist. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33(4): 315–365.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Knobe, J., and A. Burra. 2006. The folk concepts of intention and intentional action. A cross-cultural study. Journal of Cognition and Culture 6(1–2): 113–132.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Knobe, J., and B. Fraser. 2008. Causal judgment and moral judgment: Two experiments. In Moral psychology, ed. W. Sinnott-Armstrong, 441–448. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  24. Koenigs, M., and D. Tranel. 2007. Irrational economic decision-making after ventromedial prefrontal damage: evidence from the ultimatum game. The Journal of Neuroscience 27(4): 951–956.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Lanteri, A. 2012. Three-and-a-half folk concepts of intentional action. Philosophical Studies 158: 17–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Lerner, J.S., J.H. Goldberg, et al. 1998. Sober second thought. The effects of accountability, anger, and authoritarianism on attributions of responsibility. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 24(6): 563–574.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Leslie, A., J. Knobe, et al. 2006. Acting intentionally and the side-effect effect: “Theory of mind” and moral judgment. Psychological Science 17: 421–427.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Machery, E. 2008. The folk concept of intentional action. Mind & Language 23(2): 165–189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Malle, B. 2006. Intentionality, morality, and the relationship in human judgment. Journal of Cognition and Culture 6: 87–113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Malle, B., and J. Knobe. 1997. The folk concept of intentionality. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 33: 101–121.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Mele, A.R., and F. Cushman. 2007. Intentional action, folk judgments, and stories: Sorting things out. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 23: 184–201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Mikhail, J. 2007. Universal moral grammar: Theory, evidence and the future. Trends in Cognitive Science 11(4): 143–152.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Nadelhoffer, T. 2006. Bad acts, blameworthy agents, and intentional actions: Some problems for juror impartiality. Philosophical Explorations 9(2): 203–219.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Nagel, T. 1993. Moral luck. In Moral luck, ed. D. Statman, 57–71. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  35. Nichols, S., and J. Knobe. 2007. Moral responsibility and determinism: The cognitive science of folk intuitions. Nous 41(4): 663–685.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Nickerson, R.S. 1998. Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology 2(2): 175–220.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Pettit, D., and J. Knobe. 2009. The pervasive impact of moral judgment. Mind & Language 24(5): 586–604.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Singer, P. 2005. Ethics and intuitions. The Journal of Ethics 9: 331–352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Sripada, C.S. 2010. The deep self model and asymmetries in folk judgments about intentional action. Philosophical Studies 151: 159–176.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Sripada, C.S., and S. Konrath. 2011. Telling more than we can know about intentional action. Mind & Language 26(3): 353–380.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Strawson, P.F. 1962. Freedom and resentment. Proceedings of the British Academy 48: 1–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Thomson, J.J. 1976. Killing, letting die, and the trolley problem. The Monist 59(2): 204–217.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Tversky, A., and D. Kahneman. 1981. The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science 211: 453–458.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Tygart, C.E. 2000. Genetic causation attribution and public support of gay rights. International Journal of Public Opinion Research 12(3): 259–275.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Uttich, K., and T. Lombrozo. 2010. Norms inform mental state ascriptions: A rational explanation for the side-effect effect. Cognition 116: 87–100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Wallace, R.J. 1994. Responsibility and the moral sentiments. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Williams, B. 1985. Ethics and the limits of philosophy. London: Fontana.Google Scholar
  48. Young, L., F. Cushman, et al. 2006. Does emotion mediate the relationship between an action’s moral status and its intentional status? Neuropsychological evidence. Journal of Cognition and Culture 6(1–2): 265–278.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyTilburg UniversityTilburgThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Institute for PhilosophyUniversity of LeidenLeidenThe Netherlands

Personalised recommendations