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Article Analysis

The article analysis is a “dissection” of an empirical study. You should identify all the important design elements as well as

relate the author’s findings to relevant theories or other studies. To help you read the article, you can use the “How to Read a

Journal” and/or the “Critiquing Research” handout. As a summary of the article and a way to facilitate discussing the article

in class, you will need to answer the following questions:

NOTES: If the article reports on multiple experiments, focus your answers to the following questions on the last one. Pay

close attention to any figures and tables.

1) Identify the following:

a) Independent variable(s): Specify their names in APA format (i.e., capitalized) and the specific levels of each.

b) Dependent variable(s): Specify in a name or short phrase and note how it was measured. If there are more than two,

select the two most important.

c) The primary experimental hypothesis?

d) Important concepts: State the main ideas and concepts underlying the research. Modern articles show this in the

form of keywords. If it is an older article, you will need to and for this information from the abstract and/or

Introduction section. If you are stuck, look up the article in sake info and see how it was cataloged via the keywords.

2) Identify at least one operational definition: just as with the Operational Definitions homework assignment, pick either an

IV or a DV and specify how it was manipulated or measured.

3) What are important theories/empirical findings related to the study?

a) Theories. What theory/ theories informed the work?

b) Empirical findings: most of this will be found in the Results section. State the main findings in your own words.

4) Specify the experimental design in the same way that you previously did in the Identifying Variables and Experimental

Design homework. Use these templates:

a) For one IV: “This was a [within-subjects; between groups] ___________ experiment with IV Name (Level

1, Level 2, etc.) with _____________ as the primary dependent variable.” [Choose

b) For multiple IVs: “This was a 2 (Variable 1 Name: Level 1, Level 2…) x 3 (Variable 2 Name: Level 1,

Level 2, Level 3…) [within-subjects; between groups] ___________ experiment with _____________ as

the primary dependent variable.

5) Identify at least one control variables or conditions: These are factors that the experimenter held constant, but are not

independent variables. For instance, an experimenter might have used only males, or only students within a certain age

range, etc. They may have controlled the ambient level of noise, light, etc., or used a certain instrument calibrated a

certain way. They may have used remote recording devices that turned on and off for specified periods of time at random

intervals, etc. They may have recorded only those responses that occurred within a pre-defined time frame or only kept

data from participants who responded above a certain threshold of accuracy, etc.

6) Identify a confounding variable (if any): Confounds are difficult to identify as they are, almost by definition,

hidden, in the sense that they are either directly connected to, or correlated with, an independent variable. The classic

example is the highly reliable correlation between ice cream sales and murder rates. These are truly correlated, but the ice

cream sales variable is confounded with temperature. Hot weather causes people to get cranky and contributes to hire

murder rates, but if you did not recognize this, you might be tempted to infer that there is an actual connection between

ice cream sales and homicides. This is pretty common with correlations; with an experiment, it can be harder to find

compounds, because they are more controlled and take place in specified settings. Therefore, this is a bonus point

question. It’s OK to not find a confound, but you will earn bonus points for doing so.

7) Address how the confound above could be corrected.

8) What statistical analyses were conducted? Check Results for this!

9) Did the results support the hypothesis?

10) What critique did the author(s) offer for their own study or how did they suggest the study could be extended?

Article Analysis
The article analysis is a “dissection” of an empirical study. You should identify all the important design elements as well as
relate the author’s findings to relevant theories or other studies. To help you read the article, you can use the “How to Read a
Journal” and/or the “Critiquing Research” handout. As a summary of the article and a way to facilitate discussing the article
in class, you will need to answer the following questions:
NOTES: If the article reports on multiple experiments, focus your answers to the following questions on the last one. Pay
close attention to any figures and tables.
1) Identify the following:
a) Independent variable(s): Specify their names in APA format (i.e., capitalized) and the specific levels of each.
b) Dependent variable(s): Specify in a name or short phrase and note how it was measured. If there are more than two,
select the two most important.
c) The primary experimental hypothesis?
d) Important concepts: State the main ideas and concepts underlying the research. Modern articles show this in the
form of keywords. If it is an older article, you will need to and for this information from the abstract and/or
Introduction section. If you are stuck, look up the article in sake info and see how it was cataloged via the keywords.
2) Identify at least one operational definition: just as with the Operational Definitions homework assignment, pick either an
IV or a DV and specify how it was manipulated or measured.
3) What are important theories/empirical findings related to the study?
a) Theories. What theory/ theories informed the work?
b) Empirical findings: most of this will be found in the Results section. State the main findings in your own words.
4) Specify the experimental design in the same way that you previously did in the Identifying Variables and Experimental
Design homework. Use these templates:
a)
For one IV: “This was a [within-subjects; between groups] ___________ experiment with IV Name (Level
1, Level 2, etc.) with _____________ as the primary dependent variable.” [Choose
b) For multiple IVs: “This was a 2 (Variable 1 Name: Level 1, Level 2…) x 3 (Variable 2 Name: Level 1,
Level 2, Level 3…) [within-subjects; between groups] ___________ experiment with _____________ as
the primary dependent variable.
5) Identify at least one control variables or conditions: These are factors that the experimenter held constant, but are not
independent variables. For instance, an experimenter might have used only males, or only students within a certain age
range, etc. They may have controlled the ambient level of noise, light, etc., or used a certain instrument calibrated a
certain way. They may have used remote recording devices that turned on and off for specified periods of time at random
intervals, etc. They may have recorded only those responses that occurred within a pre-defined time frame or only kept
data from participants who responded above a certain threshold of accuracy, etc.
6) BONUS: Identify a confounding variable (if any): Confounds are difficult to identify as they are, almost by definition,
hidden, in the sense that they are either directly connected to, or correlated with, an independent variable. The classic
example is the highly reliable correlation between ice cream sales and murder rates. These are truly correlated, but the ice
cream sales variable is confounded with temperature. Hot weather causes people to get cranky and contributes to hire
murder rates, but if you did not recognize this, you might be tempted to infer that there is an actual connection between
ice cream sales and homicides. This is pretty common with correlations; with an experiment, it can be harder to find
compounds, because they are more controlled and take place in specified settings. Therefore, this is a bonus point
question. It’s OK to not find a confound, but you will earn bonus points for doing so.
7) BONUS: Address how the confound above could be corrected. Also a bonus point.
By Dr. Valdes (2015), modified by Dr. Buswell (2015) and Dr. Melcher (2021)
8) What statistical analyses were conducted? Check Results for this!
9) Did the results support the hypothesis?
10) What critique did the author(s) offer for their own study or how did they suggest the study could be extended?
By Dr. Valdes (2015), modified by Dr. Buswell (2015) and Dr. Melcher (2021)
Psychological Science
http://pss.sagepub.com/
Learning About What Others Were Doing: Verb Aspect and Attributions of Mundane and Criminal Intent
for Past Actions
William Hart and Dolores Albarracín
Psychological Science 2011 22: 261 originally published online 30 December 2010
DOI: 10.1177/0956797610395393
The online version of this article can be found at:
http://pss.sagepub.com/content/22/2/261
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On behalf of:
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Research Article
Learning About What Others Were Doing:
Verb Aspect and Attributions of Mundane
and Criminal Intent for Past Actions
Psychological Science
22(2) 261­–266
© The Author(s) 2011
Reprints and permission:
sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav
DOI: 10.1177/0956797610395393
http://pss.sagepub.com
William Hart1 and Dolores Albarracín2
1
University of Alabama and 2University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Abstract
Scientists have long been interested in understanding how language shapes the way people relate to others, yet it remains
unclear how formal aspects of language influence person perception. We tested whether the attribution of intentionality to a
person is influenced by whether the person’s behaviors are described as what the person was doing or as what the person did
(imperfective vs. perfective aspect). In three experiments, participants who read what a person was doing showed enhanced
accessibility of intention-related concepts and attributed more intentionality to the person, compared with participants who
read what the person did. This effect of the imperfective aspect was mediated by a more detailed set of imagined actions from
which to infer the person’s intentions and was found for both mundane and criminal behaviors. Understanding the possible
intentions of others is fundamental to social interaction, and our findings show that verb aspect can profoundly influence this
process.
Keywords
language, thought, intentionality, agency, attribution, mentalizing, social cognition
Received 4/27/10; Revision accepted 8/30/10
People’s impressions of others often rely on hearing or reading
about the others’ behavior through daily conversations or
exposure to information from the news. Semantic aspects of
these behavioral descriptions undoubtedly affect impressions
of the actors, such that someone described as viciously shoving a friend will be perceived as more aggressive than someone described as shoving a friend in a friendly manner
(Higgins, Rholes, & Jones, 1977; Loftus & Palmer, 1974;
Srull & Wyer, 1979). But how do formal linguistic features of
descriptions of actions influence people’s impressions of the
actors? Does the verb aspect of these descriptions alter such
impressions? Would people attribute greater intentionality to
another person if they learned what that person was doing, as
opposed to what he or she did? Could this subtle linguistic difference influence legal decision making by affecting attributions of intentionality? As the role of language in influencing
thought and judgment has long been a topic of scientific interest (Chomsky, 1975; Grice, 1975; Vygotsky, 1978; Whorf,
1956; see also Gleitman & Papafragou, 2005), a wide range of
researchers may desire answers to these questions.
In this article, we report research that was designed to test
whether the verb aspect used in descriptions of a person’s
behaviors influences attributions in the absence of differences
in the content of those descriptions. Specifically, we examined
whether attributions of intentionality were affected by whether
a person’s prior behaviors was described using the imperfective aspect (i.e., what the person was doing) or the perfective
aspect (i.e., what the person did; Fiske, 1989; Heider, 1958;
Jones & Davis, 1965; Shaver, 1985).
Research has shown that verb aspect can change the way
people structure a described behavior (Comrie, 1976; Vendler,
1957). The imperfective aspect (e.g., “Keith was pointing his
gun”) causes people to represent a person’s behavior as a
dynamic, unfolding sequence of actions. By contrast, the perfective aspect (e.g., “Keith pointed his gun”) causes people to
represent a person’s behavior as a completed whole (Madden
& Zwaan, 2003).1 Thus, the imperfective aspect, relative to the
perfective aspect, may support a more detailed representation
Corresponding Authors:
William Hart, Department of Psychology, University of Alabama, PO Box
873048, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
E-mail: wphart@ua.edu
Dolores Albarracín, Department of Psychology, University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign, 603 E. Daniel St., Champaign, IL 61820
E-mail: dalbarra@illinois.edu
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262
Hart, Albarracín
of a described behavior that includes a greater number of concrete, component actions (Comrie, 1976; Madden & Zwaan,
2003). In one demonstration (Morrow, 1990), participants
memorized a map of a house prior to reading about the movement of a protagonist inside the house. This movement was
conveyed using either the imperfective or the perfective aspect
(e.g., “John was walking/walked from the kitchen to bedroom”). The imperfective-aspect description caused readers to
imagine the protagonist on the path toward his destination
(i.e., walking toward the bedroom), whereas the perfectiveaspect description caused readers to imagine the protagonist
stopped at his destination (i.e., in the bedroom; see Zwaan &
Radvansky, 1998).
Verb aspect has been shown to influence not only representations of behavior, but also the processing of described
actions, which in turn can affect narrative comprehension. Presumably, readers perceive an unfolding behavior (as opposed
to a completed behavior) as more pertinent to comprehending
subsequent information and therefore analyze an unfolding
behavior in greater detail (Zwaan & Radvansky, 1998). Studies suggestive of this possibility have shown that behavior
descriptions marked with the imperfective aspect are more
memorable than the same behavior descriptions marked with
the perfective aspect (Carreiras, Carriedo, Alonso, & Fernandez,
1997; Magliano & Schleich, 2000). Perhaps surprisingly,
although prior research on verb aspect has examined behavior
representation and detailed processing (as indexed by memory
performance), it has not considered the implications of behavior representations for attributions about the actor’s intent or
assessed detailed processing directly.
Imagine that you hear that a defendant in a criminal case
“was pointing his gun at and was firing gun shots at his victim”
or that the defendant “pointed his gun at and fired gun shots at
his victim.” At first sight, these two descriptions appear similar,
but we hypothesized that the imperfective aspect may direct
perceivers to structure the defendant’s behavior as unfolding,
as opposed to finished (Madden & Zwaan, 2003). Representing
the defendant’s behavior as unfolding may compel perceivers
to imagine a greater number of intermediary or component
actions and to imagine details of what pointing and firing a gun
entails (Madden & Zwaan, 2003), thus creating a more detailed
set of behavioral components that can be used subsequently in
making attributions of intentionality (Newtson, 1973). That is,
the imperfective aspect may enable perceivers to more vividly
imagine the defendant’s concrete, component actions and consequently may increase the number of behavioral details that
can be used to infer the criminal’s intentions.
In theory, a more detailed depiction of action may promote
attributions of greater intentionality for several reasons. First,
a detailed depiction of behavior could increase attention to the
intentions that gave way to each component behavior, thus resulting in a set of many intentional actions on which to base global
intentionality judgments. Perceiving an action as corresponding to personal goals and intentions apparently happens by
default, even when the action occurs in the presence of social
pressures that seemingly invite external attribution (i.e., the
correspondence bias; Jones & Harris, 1967). Second, a
detailed behavior representation may highlight the effort
required by the multiple actions and thereby imply considerable determination and intent (Aronson & Mills, 1959; Kelley,
1973). Third, a detailed representation with more imagined
actions provides more opportunities to take the actor’s perspective and consequently provides more instances in which
the perceiver may imagine the actor’s intentions (Kozak,
Marsh, & Wegner, 2006; Wegner & Giuliano, 1982).
Prior research has shown that more detailed analyses of
behaviors promote more internal attributions to actors (i.e.,
psychological explanations, as opposed to external, situational
explanations of behavior; Deaux & Major, 1977; Lassiter,
1988; Newtson, 1973; Newtson & Rinder, 1979; Wilder, 1978a;
also see Lassiter, Geers, Munhall, Ploutz-Snyder, & Breitenbecher, 2002). In one experiment (Newtson, 1973), participants
watched a 5-min video depicting a man engaging in mundane
behaviors (e.g., reading a book, throwing away garbage), having been instructed to segment his behavior into either many
small units or a few large units. Later, participants were asked
to imagine the man engaging in certain behaviors (e.g., solving a math problem) and to ascribe external or internal causes
to his behavior (e.g., “the problem was easy” vs. “he is good at
math”). As anticipated, participants assigned to segment the
videotaped behavior into many small units were more likely to
choose the internal explanations for his later behaviors.
Attributions of intentionality are particularly meaningful in
the context of impression formation because they contribute to
judgments of personal responsibility and blame for behavior
outcomes in a fashion that is uniquely human (Leyens et al.,
2000; Pinker, 1997; Schlenker, 1997). Prior research suggests
that intentionality judgments can be influenced by world
knowledge related to the person being judged (e.g., knowledge
that adults are more capable of high-level cognition than children are; Gray, Gray, & Wegner, 2007) and the behavior being
considered (e.g., knowledge that falling in love is often unintended; Malle & Knobe, 1997), as well as by the perceiver’s
ability and motivation to make mental-state inferences (e.g.,
Kozak et al., 2006). For example, people are more inclined to
attribute intentionality to another person when they are directly
asked to imagine the thoughts and feelings of that person
(Kozak et al., 2006). Also, people are more inclined to make
attributions of intentionality when they consider behaviors
that are presumed to be driven by beliefs and desires, such as
asking a love interest out on a date, than when they consider
behaviors that are emitted more automatically, such as sweating (Malle & Knobe, 1997). Note, however, that this past
research has investigated effects of semantic aspects of the
information presented (e.g., characteristics of the actors—
Kozak et al., 2006; different behavior descriptions—Malle &
Knobe, 1997) and of direct instructions to take another person’s perspective (Kozak et al., 2006), but has not investigated
possible effects of formal aspects of behavior descriptions on
attributions of intentionality.
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263
Verb Aspect and Attributions of Intent
In three experiments, we examined how verb aspect affects the
process of making intentionality attributions in the context of
everyday (Experiments 1 and 2) and criminal (Experiment 3)
behavior. In each experiment, participants were randomly
assigned to read a set of descriptions of a person’s behavior. These
descriptions were identical across conditions except for whether
the imperfective or perfective verb aspect was used (e.g., “Keith
was playing/played basketball”). Subsequently, participants completed measures assessing the effects of verb aspect on detailed
processing of the behaviors, accessibility of intention-relevant
concepts in memory, and intentionality attributions. To assess the
detailed processing of the behaviors, we measured behavior segmentation rates (Experiment 2) and the self-reported ease of
imagining the subcomponents (or segments) of the behaviors
(Experiment 3; “How easy was it for you to imagine this person’s
concrete actions?”). These two theoretically equivalent measures
are consistent with past conceptualizations of detailed processing
(Newtson, 1973). To assess demand effects, at the close of each
experiment we asked participants to guess its purpose. As no participant correctly guessed the purpose of any of the three experiments, we do not discuss the issue of demand further.
Experiment 1
In Experiment 1, we tested whether reading about what
someone was doing (imperfective aspect) would increase the
accessibility of intention-relevant concepts in memory (e.g.,
“want”), relative to reading about what someone did (perfective aspect). In this experiment, participants were asked to
read a set of behavioral descriptions attributed to a character;
these descriptions were conveyed in either the imperfective
aspect or the perfective aspect. After participants read the
descriptions, they completed a measure of memory for intentionrelevant concepts. As attributions of intentionality require mentalstate concepts such as goals and wants (Heider & Simmel, 1944),
we predicted that the amount of residual activation of these
concepts (following the reading task) would be greater under
conditions in which we expected greater attributions of intentionality (i.e., the imperfective-aspect condition).
To test our hypotheses, we asked 54 introductory psychology
students to read a series of 15 descriptions of evaluatively neutral behavior performed by a male protagonist named Keith.2
Participants were randomly assigned to a condition in which all
the behavioral descriptions were conveyed in the perfective
aspect or a condition in which all the behavioral descriptions were
conveyed in the imperfective aspect (e.g., “Keith prepared/was
preparing dinner for some friends”; “Keith read/was reading a
chapter in his psychology book”; “Keith made/was making
small talk with a neighbor”). Participants were instructed to
read the behavioral descriptions, which were presented simultaneously, and to try to understand Keith.
After participants read the behavior descriptions, they completed an ostensibly unrelated experiment on verbal fluency that
involved completing word stems. Specifically, participants were
shown 13 word stems, 7 of which could be completed to form
either a word related to intentions (try, aim, goal, determination,
plan, intent, and want) or a word not related to intentions
(e.g., toy, ail, coal, extermination, peon, indent, and wand,
respectively). The word stems were presented sequentially in
the following order (target stems are in italics): “S_ _P,”
“T_Y,” “AI_,” “F_ _OR,” “_OAL,” “_OOT_,” “MO_SE,”
“_ _TERMINATION,” “P_ _N,” “RU_B_R,” “IN_E_T,” and
“WAN_.” The number of target stems completed with intentionrelevant words was used as a measure of accessibility of intention-relevant concepts.
As predicted, participants in the imperfective-aspect condition completed more word stems with words denoting intentions than did participants in the perfective-aspect condition
(M = 3.89, SD = 1.10, vs. M = 2.68, SD = 1.25), F(1, 53) =
13.31, p = .001, d = 1.00. This finding is consistent with the
possibility that participants who read the imperfective-aspect
descriptions considered the actor’s possible intentions more
than participants who read the perfective-aspect descriptions
did. Nevertheless, this finding does not necessarily imply that
verb aspect increased attributions of intentionality directly to
the actor. Therefore, in Experiment 2, we examined attributions of intentionality to the actor, as well as differences in
the detail with which behavior is construed (i.e., behavior
segmentation).
Experiment 2
Experiment 2 tested whether framing a person’s prior behaviors
as what that person was doing would promote a more fine-grained
analysis of the behaviors (indexed by behavior segmentation)
compared with framing the behaviors as what the person did, and
would thereby increase attributions of intentionality to that person. In this experiment, 37 introductory psychology students
were told that they would participate in a study on impression
formation in which they would read about a person’s behaviors.
They read nine descriptions of evaluatively neutral behaviors
attributed to “Keith”; the descriptions were presented sequentially on a computer screen, and, depending on condition, either
all were written in the imperfective aspect or all were written in
the perfective aspect. These descriptions were conceptually similar to the ones used in Experiment 1 but described a different set
of behaviors (e.g., “Keith sipped/was sipping his coffee,” “Keith
opened/was opening his mail,” and “Keith washed/was washing
his hands”). Participants were asked to read each behavior
description, imagine the described behavior, and then place a tally
mark on a sheet of paper for each meaningful segment of action
they imagined (for similar procedures, see Wilder, 1978a, 1978b;
Newtson & Rinder, 1979). Participants’ tally marks served as an
indication of the number of action segments they registered from
the behavior descriptions, and the number of action segments
(tally marks) was averaged across the nine target behaviors.
After participants performed this task, they completed three
intention-attribution items from the Mind Attribution Scale
(Kozak et al., 2006) in reference to Keith: “Keith is capable of
doing things on purpose,” “Keith is capable of planned action,”
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264
Hart, Albarracín
and “Keith has goals.” Participants responded to the items on
a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). As in
prior research (Kozak et al., 2006), the three items formed a
coherent scale (α = .84), and responses were averaged to form
a measure of intentionality attribution.
We hypothesized that the imperfective aspect would
enhance intentionality attributions by promoting the detailed
segmentation of behavior descriptions. As predicted, participants in the imperfective-aspect condition perceived Keith’s
behavior as more intentional than did participants in the
perfective-aspect condition (M = 5.55, SD = 1.10, vs. M = 4.63,
SD = 0.72), F(1, 35) = 9.28, p = .004, d = 1.00. Also as predicted, participants in the imperfective-aspect condition tallied
more action segments than did participants in the perfectiveaspect condition (M = 4.64, SD = 1.99, vs. M = 2.72, SD =
1.09), F(1, 35) = 13.60, p = .001, d = 1.23, a pattern suggesting
more detailed processing in the former condition.
Next, we tested whether the number of action segments registered mediated the effect of verb aspect on intentionality attribution. To assess mediation, we estimated the standard deviation of
the indirect effect of verb aspect (via the number of action segments) on intentionality attributions for 5,000 bootstrapped samples (Preacher & Hayes, 2004). The indirect effect was estimated
to lie between 0.03 and 0.84 with 95% confidence (b = 0.38,
SE = 0.21). Because zero was not included in the 95% confidence interval, this analysis demonstrates significant mediation.
Experiment 3
In our third experiment, we tested whether the effects of verb
aspect would extend to a legal decision-making scenario in which
participants decided whether the actor had a criminal intention to
harm a victim. We asked 48 introductory psychology students to
take the perspective of a judge in a criminal case about a man who
shot another man after a verbal dispute (this report was modeled
from the summary statement in State v. Williams, 2010). Participants were randomly assigned to read either a perfective-aspect or
an imperfective-aspect version of the short case report:
After an argument broke out between James
Westmoreland and Darryl McElroy in a 2009 dice game
in East Cleveland, Westmoreland was pulling/pulled out
his gun and was pointing/pointed it at Darryl McElroy.
As the other players, including Darryl McElroy,
attempted to run away, Westmoreland was firing/fired
gun shots, one of which struck McElroy in the back,
paralyzing him. McElroy and others identified
Westmoreland as the shooter, and Westmoreland was
later arrested and confessed to the crime.
After participants finished reading the report, they rated
whether they thought Westmoreland intentionally or unintentionally caused harm to McElroy. Specifically, they rated the extent
to which Westmoreland knowingly (from −5, unknowingly, to
+5, knowingly), intentionally (from −5, unintentionally, to +5,
intentionally), and deliberately (from −5, accidentally, to +5,
deliberatively) caused harm to McElroy. These three items
formed a cohesive scale (α = .85), and ratings were therefore
averaged as a measure of criminal intentionality. In addition,
participants completed the intention-attribution items from
Experiment 2 (taken from the Mind Attribution Scale; Kozak
et al., 2006), but in reference to Westmoreland (α = .69). Subsequently, participants were asked to self-report the extent to
which the case report promoted the detailed processing of the
criminal act. They were asked to rate, on a scale from 1 (very
difficult) to 7 (very easy), the extent to which the case report
made it easy or difficult for them to imagine (a) the crime
unfolding, (b) Westmoreland’s concrete behaviors, (c) Westmoreland’s physical movements, and (d) the details of the
crime. To facilitate accurate reports, we made the case report
available for viewing while participants responded to each of
these questions. Because ratings of the four items were highly
correlated (rs = .46–.71), they were averaged to form a measure of detailed processing (α = .87).
As predicted, participants in the imperfective-aspect condition indicated greater levels of criminal intentionality than did
participants in the perfective-aspect condition (M = 4.89, SD =
1.06, vs. M = 3.69, SD = 1.94), F(1, 46) = 7.02, p = .01, d =
0.76. By the same token, as in Experiment 2, participants in
the imperfective-aspect condition made significantly higher
intention attributions (the Mind Attribution Scale measure)
than did participants in the perfective-aspect condition (M =
4.61, SD = 0.84, vs. M = 4.06, SD = 0.79), F(1, 46) = 5.29, p =
.03, d = 0.66. In addition, participants in the imperfectiveaspect condition reported imagining the criminal behaviors in
a more detailed way than did participants in the perfectiveaspect condition (M = 5.40, SD = 1.16, vs. M = 4.48, SD =
1.34), F(1, 46) = 6.39, p = .02, d = 0.73. This latter finding
conceptually replicates the finding of more detailed processing (as indexed by action segmentation) in the imperfectiveaspect condition of Experiment 2.
To assess mediation, we examined whether verb aspect
influenced perceptions of criminal intentionality through the
detailed-processing index. The indirect effect of aspect (via
the detailed-processing index) on perceptions of criminal
intentionality was estimated to be between 0.06 and 1.15 with
95% confidence (b = 0.50, SE = 0.28). This finding suggests
that the imperfective aspect enhanced attributions of criminal
intentionality because it promoted a more detailed processing
of the criminal behaviors. Likewise, in a separate mediation
analysis, we found that the indirect effect of aspect (via the
detailed-processing index) on intention attributions was also
significant (95% confidence interval = 0.05, 0.52; b = 0.24,
SE = 0.12). This latter mediation effect is conceptually equivalent to the mediation effect in Experiment 2.3
General Discussion
Despite decades of interest in impression formation and much
research on intentionality attributions, there has been an
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265
Verb Aspect and Attributions of Intent
absence of work on how the linguistic structure of behavior
descriptions influences impression formation. We examined
whether describing a person’s behaviors in terms of what the
person was doing (rather than what the person did) would
enhance intentionality attributions in the context of both mundane and criminal behaviors. In Experiment 1, participants
had intention-relevant concepts more accessible in memory
after reading descriptions of a person’s behaviors conveyed in
the imperfective aspect than after reading the same descriptions conveyed in the perfective aspect. Experiment 2 extended
these findings by showing that the imperfective aspect led to
segmenting more actions from the described behaviors, which
in turn increased attributions of intentionality to the actor.
Finally, Experiment 3 highlighted important implications of
our model for assessments of criminal intentionality and also
conceptually replicated the findings of Experiment 2. In particular, Experiment 3 revealed that when violent, unlawful
actions were described in the imperfective rather than the perfective aspect, the perpetrator of the actions was viewed as
engaging in them with greater harmful intent. As in Experiment 2, these effects of aspect were traced back to differences
in the detail with which the actions were processed.
Although our findings were consistent, our experiments
suggest several areas for additional research. First, we used
correlational procedures to test mediation and therefore cannot
fully discount a spurious relation between detailed behavior
processing and intentionality attributions. Nevertheless, given
that prior experimental evidence has shown a direct causal link
between these two variables (e.g., Newtson, 1973), the possibility of a spurious relation is unlikely. Second, we used a limited set of assessments of detailed processing, and convergent
findings with conceptually similar measures are needed to
provide more confidence in our conclusions. For example,
detailed processing might be measured by the speed of deciding whether a component action (e.g., “put on shirt”) is part of
a larger behavior (e.g., “was getting/got dressed”). Third, we
are aware that psychological phenomena are complex and
multidetermined and do not presume that a single mechanism
underlies the effects we observed. For example, compared
with the perfective aspect, the imperfective aspect may also
suggest a longer behavior duration, which may in turn suggest
greater persistence and intent. Future work should address
these possibilities.
Further research is also required to examine the generality
of our initial findings, by using different measures of person
perception (e.g., direct assessments of personal responsibility
for outcomes), contexts (e.g., distracting environments), verbs
(e.g., randomly selected verbs), and tenses (e.g., present tense).
For example, the effects of aspect on intentionality attributions
might be more pronounced for verbs that describe easily segmentable, complex, conscious behaviors (e.g., studying) than
for verbs that describe less segmentable, simple, perhaps automatic behaviors (e.g., sweating). Also, the effects of aspect
on intentionality attributions might decrease (or increase)
when situational variables (e.g., the presence vs. absence of
distracting noise in a courtroom) decrease (or increase) the
ability to process a described behavior in a detailed way.
Finally, the influence of verb aspect on intentionality attributions may be weaker for verbs in the present and future tenses
than for verbs in the past tense. For example, in the present
tense, aspect is unlikely to produce differences in detailed processing because both the perfective and the imperfective
aspect (“I walk/am walking”) suggest a current, unfolding (and
incomplete) action.
Despite the need for future research, our initial findings
have important practical implications. For example, the results
of Experiment 3 suggest that a defense attorney might be able
to make clients appear less responsible for their actions by
using the perfective aspect in statements about their behavior
(i.e., what the clients did). In contrast, a state attorney might be
able to make a defendant appear more guilty by presenting a
closing statement using the imperfective aspect rather than the
perfective aspect. Judgments of mental capacity for goaldirected behavior figure prominently in all aspects of legal
proceedings, and our results show how subtle aspect cues may
bias these judgments.
Acknowledgments
We thank Ali Earl and Ilan Shrira for feedback on a draft of this
article.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interest with
respect to their authorship or the publication of this article.
Funding
This research was facilitated by grants from the National Institutes of
Health (K02-MH01861, R01-NR08325).
Notes
1. Note that the imperfective and perfective aspect are presumed to
influence whether a behavior is structured as ongoing or completed,
and not necessarily whether it is habitual (Comrie, 1976). In English,
for example, either the perfective or the imperfective aspect can be
used to describe habitual actions, although research suggests that
people most often choose the perfective aspect to describe habitual
action (Tagliamonte & Lawrence, 2000).
2. Data from 2 participants were lost because of a computer error.
Data from an additional 2 participants were discarded because they
spent less than 15 s reading the behavior descriptions. Eliminating
these participants did not change the pattern of the cell means.
3. In addition to promoting intentionality attributions in Experiment 3,
the imperfective aspect might have created a more coherent representation of the story than the perfective aspect did because the
case report in the imperfective aspect depicted a series of behaviors
that apparently unfolded into each other. Although these potential
discourse-level differences cannot account for our results in Experiments 1 and 2, which used disjointed actions that would not be construed as a coherent story, such differences may be the subject of
future narrative-comprehension research.
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266
Hart, Albarracín
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