In today's society, assessing harmful acts usually invokes several different factors — severity, method, circumstance, and previous record, to name a few. However, most of us start by asking the same question: was it done on purpose?

Many would agree that willful transgressions are significantly more reprehensible than similar acts done by accident. The judiciary itself relies on this moral distinction; in virtually all court systems around the world, unintentional acts are viewed in a different light than their willful counterparts. For this reason, judgment ideally distinguishes between “punitive” and “compensatory” damages — that is, while the perpetrator’s punishment can be harsher depending on intent, the victim’s compensation should remain the same.

Given our shared tendency to make mistakes, this distinction seems fair. However, new research suggests that our understanding of the actual damage done changes according to the perpetrator's state of mind. For us, clear malice instantly inflates the physical and mental consequences of the act — even if an indistinguishable act framed as a mistake would elicit sympathy, even compassion.

The new study, which is published Psychological Science, indicates that these findings may have legal implications, as a jury may overestimate damage and award disproportionate compensation in cases of willful harm.

Lead researchers Daniel Ames and Susan Fiske of Princeton University explain that while the law indeed recognizes the fundamental difference between intentional and unintentional acts, the distinction is limited to the act's punitive damages. Problems arise when individuals confuse this with compensatory damages, which are independent of the perpetrator's state of mind.

"But [the distinction] assumes that people can assess compensatory damages — what it would cost to make a person 'whole' again — independently of punitive damages," they explain. "These studies suggest that people might not only penalize intentional harm more, but actually perceive it as intrinsically more damaging."

To test their hypothesis, the researchers enrolled a number of people in an experiment designed to assess an individual's ability to keep punitive damages and compensatory damages separate. In this experiment, the participants were asked to read a brief narrative about a corporate executive making a poor investment and costing his employers money. Some participants were told that the investment was an unfortunate mistake; others were told that it was part of a corporate scheme designed to inflate long-term profits and make employers work harder.

The researchers found that the latter group tended to exaggerate significantly the damage done by the CEO, even though they were presented with the same data as the former group.

This phenomenon persisted throughout other variations on this experiment discussed in the study.

The research thus suggests that the mind has trouble separating the formal implications of an event from its circumstances. For this reason, the judiciary could perhaps benefit from the implementation of two sets of fact-finders: one responsible for punitive damages, the other for compensatory.

Source: D. L. Ames, S. T. Fiske. Intentional Harms Are Worse, Even When They're Not. Psychological Science. 2013.