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Translated Psychology, Episode 2: Why Intent Matters

In this series, we are taking basic psychological research and translating that research into more specific business settings. Today’s discussion focusses on studies on pain that show that intentional harms seem to hurt more than unintentional ones. How does this translate to the office?

Let’s say that you are walking along on your merry way, when suddenly an apple falls from a tree branch above you and hits your head with a dull thud. In a bit of pain, you stop, look around, and realise that it fell naturally, and you return to your walk. The very next day, you are taking the same path. But this time, you look up and see that there is a rather menacing squirrel above you gnawing at the stem of an apple while looking down at you, timing its bites so that the apple detaches as you walk underneath. Before you have time to react – you are very slow despite being so perceptive – the apple bonks you on the head. If you were asked which apple-head impact hurt more, you would probably pick the squirrel’s apple. Why is that?

In “The Sting of Intentional Pain”, Harvard researchers Gray and Wagner demonstrate that a person perceives additional physical pain if they also perceive that there was malicious intent behind the pain. In order to prove their hypothesis, the researchers designed a study in which participants would receive electric shocks from other participants in another room. The participants were told before each shock whether it was intentional or not, and each participant would rate the pain they felt on a scale from 1 to 7. Their results were fascinating. When it came to unintentional harm, the average pain rating for the electric shock was a 3. When it came to intentional harm, the average pain rating was a 3.6. Furthermore, although it did not seem to be the hypothesis being tested, the authors noted that pain registered for unintentional shocks declined with repetition. Conversely, the pain registered for intentional shocks did not show such a decline upon repeat tests. This suggests habituation to repeated unintentional pain, but not intentional pain.

Someone is out to get me!

Inevitably, someone is going to hurt you at work. And your perception of that harm will most certainly be influenced by whether you perceive it as intentional or unintentional. If you feel that someone is out to get you, or if they are going out of their way to put you in your place, then it is going to sting you more than if you felt it was accidental. This is why some of the most manipulative people (and some of the best businesspeople), make all their harms seem as unintentional as possible. “Oh, I am sorry, I did not even know I was circumventing your authority and embarrassing you in front of your boss. My mistake!” But even the least manipulative among as do not necessarily announce their intentions when they harm us. If we know we are sensitive to intent, we can better gauge the reality of a perceived harm, and ideally respond to the slight with a cooler head.


Gray, K., & Wegner, D. M. (2008). The Sting of Intentional Pain. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1260–1262.