Proximal and Distal Intent: Toward a New Folk Theory of Intentional Action

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Inferences regarding actors’ intentions play an important role in social and moral cognition. Numerous studies have operationalized intentionality in a binary fashion (i.e., an act is either “intentional” or “unintentional”). The authors suggest, however, that when determining the degree to which an act was intentional, lay observers consider two independent dimensions: proximal intent (the actor’s focus on the means) and distal intent (the actor’s focus on the end). They describe how the proximal intent/distal intent (PIDI) approach allows researchers to understand observers’ intent-related judgments with greater precision. The authors review studies highlighting a range of variables that lead perceivers to prioritize either proximal intent or distal intent in their social and moral judgment. They describe how previous findings in the literature may be reinterpreted in light of the PIDI framework. Finally, they suggest ways in which the PIDI framework implies novel directions for future research on moral cognition.

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