07/30/2013 01:20 pm ET

People Judge Intentional Harms More Severely, Study Finds

Was it clearly an accident, or more of a malicious move? How we perceive an action affects how we judge it, according to a new study from Princeton University researchers.

For the study, published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers had participants read about the CEO of a profit-sharing company who invested poorly, leading to his employees losing part of their paychecks. Some of the study participants were told that the bad investment was made intentionally, while others were told it was just an innocent mistake. Those who were told the investment was made intentionally were more likely to perceive the pay cut as worse, even though everyone technically lost the same amount of money.

Researchers encouraged the study participants who believed the CEO acted nefariously to "build a case" against him, in which they found that their "case" actually exaggerated the extent of the harm.

“These studies suggest that people might not only penalize intentional harm more, but actually perceive it as intrinsically more damaging,” the researchers, Daniel Ames and Susan Fiske of Princeton University, said in a statement.

In a similar experiment in the study, researchers had participants estimate sums of damage a city experienced from a drought. People who were told that the water shortage was caused by a drought (therefore, not a malicious cause) estimated cost damages to be far less than if they were told the drought was caused by a man who purposely diverted water away.

Researchers said these findings could have implications for both the legal system and policy-related judgments. “Intentional harms might receive more funding and attention, not just because of political imperatives and moral reactionism, but also because intent magnifies the perceived harms themselves,” Ames and Fiske said in the statement.