Thoughts, Motives, and Intentions

By Sherry Colb

In my Verdict column for this week, I discuss the necessary tension that pervades the relationship between our First Amendment freedom of speech and thought, on one hand, and the way in which we define and prove criminal conduct, on the other.  It would in fact be quite difficult to imagine a criminal justice system that classified a defendant's state of mind as legally irrelevant.

In this post, I want to suggest that there is a profound distinction between our thoughts that we simply think or express in words and the motives and intentions that drive our behavior.  That is, I would argue that the sort of thought that floats around in our heads is qualitatively a distinct phenomenon from the sort of thought that impels us to act.  Intentions and motives, on this approach, are more than simply "thought plus action."

In considering this idea, I find myself thinking about the Harvard Implicit Association Test (I.A.T.) a test that anyone can take here and that will purportedly expose that person's true beliefs regarding race, sex, and other characteristics.  The test is elegant in its simplicity.  It asks the test-taker, by turns, to associate stereotype-consistent and stereotype-defying ideas and calculates whether he or she takes longer to draw the stereotype-defying associations.  If you have have an easier time pairing a female item with a passive and home-oriented item, for example, than with an assertive and powerful item, then you may be harboring sexist biases.

I took the test a number of years ago and was delighted to learn that I do not harbor negative racial associations.  But then I thought about how peculiar it was for me to imagine that an implicit association test, if I had scored differently on it, would have been able to say something significant about my belief system.  It would undoubtedly be interesting to know whether I have an easier time associating stereotype-conforming pairs than stereotype-defying pairs.  But the notion that a test-taker might actually "turn out" to be a racist or a sexist by virtue of how speedily he or she could draw associations strikes me as wrong and perhaps even pernicious.

Why pernicious?  To be a racist, in my view, is to behave in a fashion that inflicts or attempts to inflict harm on others on account of race.  To identify destructive stereotypes through an I.A.T. is most useful, it seems to me, in showing that such stereotypes pervade our society and will therefore likely infect interactions between people.  A society, in other words, can offer a hostile environment for people in a racial or ethnic minority even if the individuals within that society are not themselves racist.  I do not think that we gain anything, however, from informing particular individuals that they either do or do not harbor racial or sexual biases, based on their performance on the I.A.T.

What does any of this have to do with thought versus intentions and motives?  Thoughts are the sorts of phenomena that show up on a measure like the I.A.T.  They are unconscious associations that pervade our culture and have harmful effects both on the self-perception of the people whom they stereotype and on the interactions between members of the privileged minority or majority and members of historically oppressed groups.  Intentions and motives, on the other hand, drive individual people to do things that help or harm others.  They can, accordingly, evidence individual culpability.

If we want people to treat each other in a more enlightened fashion, I think that we ought to be focusing on encouraging people to examine and become mindful of their intentions and motivations when they act, rather than on their implicit associations. As in the First Amendment context, when it comes to free-floating ideas that people have, policy-makers might do best to avoid trying to shame people for those or otherwise regulate them.

I have no more  reason to feel complacent or proud about having "passed" the I.A.T. than a peer has to feel guilty for having "failed" it.  We ought to judge people's goodness by what they do and attempt to do, because actions rather than free-floating thoughts reflect the mental processes with the greatest potential for causing harm and, alternatively, transforming our world for the good.