Replication Effort Finds No Evidence That Grammatical Aspect Affects Perceived Intent

A multi-lab replication project found no evidence that the verb form used to describe a crime influences the way people judge criminal intent, in contrast to previously published findings. The Registered Replication Report (RRR), published in the January 2016 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, synthesizes the results from 12 independent replication attempts.

In 2011, William Hart and Dolores Albarracín published a striking study in Psychological Science examining how the verb aspect in which a passage is written affects how that passage is interpreted. In one of their experiments, subjects read a passage describing the shooting of one man by another man after a gambling disagreement. One version of the passage was written in a form called the imperfective aspect (Westmoreland was firing gun shots), and the other passage was written in the perfective aspect (Westmoreland fired gun shots).

Hart and Albarracín found that subjects who read the imperfective-aspect passage judged the shooter to be more intentional in his actions, and also imagined the event more vividly and with more detail, than did subjects who read the perfective-aspect passage.

“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,” Hart and Albarracín wrote.

This effect could have implications for how information is presented to juries in the justice system.

With this in mind, psychology researchers Anita Eerland, Andrew Sherrill, Joseph Magliano, and Rolf Zwaan led an RRR to investigate the effect, developing a detailed experimental protocol in consultation with Hart and Albarracín. Independent research teams joined Eerland et al. in carrying out 12 independent replication attempts, and a meta-analysis was conducted on the final results. In contrast to the original findings, the meta-analysis did not detect effects of verb aspect on subjects’ judgments of criminal intentionality or on the level of detail imagined by subjects while reading the passage.

“Taken together, our studies did not provide evidence that describing actions in imperfect aspect resulted in greater perceived intentionality… or more detailed processing of those actions. This overall pattern of results was consistent across studies,” the replication authors wrote.

As noted by Special Associate Editor Alex Holcombe (University of Sydney) in his introduction to the RRR, the replicating labs had expected to find the original effect:

“The individual results and the result of the planned meta-analysis surprised all twelve of the teams,” Holcombe said.

The RRR, an accompanying introduction, and a commentary authored by William Hart are available to the public online.

Interested scientists can examine the RRR data and protocols via the Open Science Framework.


Further reading:

Eerland, A., Sherrill, A. M., Magliano, J. P., Zwaan, R. A., Arnal, J. D., Aucoin, P., … Prenoveau, J. M. (2016). Registered replication report: Hart & Albarracín (2011). Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11, 158-171.

Hart, W. (2016). A Comment on Eerland et al. (2016). Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11, 309-310.

Hart, W., & Albarracín, D. (2011). Learning about what others were doing: Verb aspect and attributions of mundane and criminal intent for past actions. Psychological Science, 22, 261-266.

Holcombe, A. (2016). Introduction to the registered replication report: Hart & Albarracín (2011). Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11, 156-157.


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