By Dan Bennett, Consulting Director, Ogilvy Consulting's Behavioural Science Practice 


Experimental Philosophy is something that doesn’t sound fun but is.

“What a waste of time” you scream?

“Write about Elon Musk or fake news” you yell?

Hear me out.

It may sound like a class at Hogwarts, but they explore some fascinating questions.

100 people in a park in Manhattan were presented this scenario by an Experimental Philosopher, probably wearing a cape.

The head of R&D rushes up to the CEO of a large corporation and says, “If we locate the new factory by the river we will make big profits but we’ll also harm the environment”.

The CEO replies “I don’t care about the environment, I only care about the profits” and the smelly polluting factory is built by the river.

Our Manhattan park dwellers are then asked if the CEO intended to harm the environment or not.

Clearly Ms or Mr mean CEO has made their intention for profit hunting clear, and 82% agree in the CEO’s intention to harm the environment.

That’s an interesting finding. That means that 18% of people didn’t think the decision was intended to harm. Whatever you do, find these people and engage in a lifelong relationship. You will never be unhappy together.

But the majority of responders can detect the intention behind the action. What happens if we change a few words? It should be that we care that profit hunting is the only focus. What happens if he still only cares about the profits, but the side effect is that the environment gets better?

Another set of park dwellers are told, the head of R&D rushes in and says “if we locate the new factory by the river we will make big profits and we’ll also benefit the environment”. The CEO replies the same “I don’t care about the environment, I only care about the profits”.

Now, this time only 23% of our people believe our CEO is trying to help the environment. The perceived intention behind the side effect is drastically different whether it’s good or bad. We believe the CEO is actively being bad when he accepts a negative side effect, but isn’t actively being good when he accepts the result of a positive side effect.

Mind blown.

You can only understand a behaviour in the context of why you think it’s happening.

Why we think someone is doing something means as much as what they are doing.

When your handsome and beautiful partner brings you home a large bouquet of flowers, the reason why you think they have performed such a generous act will sway how you react to them.

Perhaps it’s because your very own David Gandy is so perfect he’s now doing everything he can to delight you?

Perhaps he’s late home and feels that by bearing a floral shield he might diffuse any hard feelings?

Or perhaps he thinks that pollen and bright colours might distract you from his growing affair with Sophie from accounts (which you’re well aware of and are just letting develop so you can claim more in your divorce settlement).

Whatever you think the reason for the gift is, there is no way for your brain to evaluate the act of being bought flowers without also evaluating the intention.

Experimental Philosophers call this Intentional Action and it is an evolved tool for us to use.

It also has big ramifications for how we perceive the actions of businesses.

So for all the messages that you put together this week, have a think about whether you have framed it within the right set of intentions. Is your message coming from the right person and from the right department? It’s impossible to separate the act from the reason why you think the act happened.


Big thanks to my semi-hero and colleague Pete Dyson for pointing out Intentional Action to me a few years ago, and who continues to insist on his citation every time I use it.