When Does Knowledge Become Intent? Perceiving the Minds of Wrongdoers


  • Pam A. Mueller,

  • Lawrence M. Solan,

  • John M. Darley

  • Our thanks to Kenneth Simons, Tony Sebok, Aaron Twerski, Adam Kolber, Terry Maroney, Francis Shen, and anonymous reviewers for the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies and the 2011 Conference on Empirical Legal Studies. A version of this article was presented at the Metro Experimental Research Group (MERG) Experimental Philosophy Conference at NYU in 2011; we are also grateful to the participants of that conference for their comments.

Address correspondence to Pam Mueller, Department of Psychology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08542; email: pamuelle@princeton.edu.


In a series of experimental studies, we asked people to assign appropriate civil and/or criminal liability to individuals who cause harm with various culpable states of mind and kinds of knowledge. The studies are principally aimed at two related issues. First, do people actually separate the various states of mind conceptually? How much knowledge, and what kind of knowledge, regarding something that may go wrong (understanding risk) is sufficient to count as knowing that something will go wrong (having knowledge legally equivalent to intent)? Second, to the extent that people distinguish among the states of mind that help define normative behavior, how much do those distinctions contribute to people's judgments of civil liability? Our studies show that people are able to make explicit distinctions about the states of mind of others that more or less correspond to legally relevant categories. Yet, when asked to assign consequences, their “hot” moral judgments play a larger role than do their “cold” cognitive categorizations.