A simple definition of ‘intentionally’

Tadeg Quillien, Tamsin C. German

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Cognitive scientists have been debating how the folk concept of intentional action works. We suggest a simple account: people consider that an agent did X intentionally to the extent that X was causally dependent on how much the agent wanted X to happen (or not to happen). Combined with recent models of human causal cognition, this definition provides a good account of the way people use the concept of intentional action, and offers natural explanations for puzzling phenomena such as the side-effect effect. We provide empirical support for our theory, in studies where we show that people's causation and intentionality judgments track each other closely, in everyday situations as well as in scenarios with unusual causal structures. Study 5 additionally shows that the effect of norm violations on intentionality judgments depends on the causal structure of the situation, in a way uniquely predicted by our theory. Taken together, these results suggest that the folk concept of intentional action has been difficult to define because it is made of cognitive building blocks, such as our intuitive concept of causation, whose logic cognitive scientists are just starting to understand.
Original languageEnglish
Article number104806
Number of pages19
Early online date17 Jun 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2021

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Intentional action
  • Causation
  • Concepts
  • Theory of mind


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