When was the last time you picked up a magic lamp, only to be thwarted by the fine print of a genie? You thought you came up with the perfect wish – one that will guarantee you riches, true love, and eternal happiness. But, alas, you didn’t really understand what you were asking. And bam! You end up having to deal with the unintended consequences of your request.
We all know the genie is not the good guy of this type of story.
We find this reoccurring theme in movies and literature. Evil agents, from demons to devils to, in this case, genies, don’t care about your intentions. They may grant your wish – even if you don’t understand what you’re asking for. But what would happen if you make a request to a good agent, like an angel?
A recent study by researchers at York University and the University of Waterloo asked the question – do people expect their wishes to be granted more often by a good agent or by an evil one, even if we are confused or we don’t understand what we are asking for?
“People tend to think that God can know ‘what’s in their heart’ so to speak,” said study lead Rebecca Dunk. But that’s not the case when dealing with an evil agent. “Looking at popular fiction, we could see tons of examples of spontaneous demonic activity or possession that comes about by some banal choice — like playing the tape in The Evil Dead.”
Over the course of five experiments and by polling over 2,000 people, the study looked at whether or not people expected a good or evil agent to grant a request, even if the requestor was confused or didn’t make the request properly. The study looked at the expectations people had for both supernatural entities – like angels and demons – and real humans.
“People predicted that when an evil supernatural being, or an evil human, gets a request, they don’t really care whether the requester really meant it,” says Dr. Ori Friedman, a researcher on the study. “People think that an evil being or individual will be relatively willing to grant requests that weren’t intended. But people predict that good beings and humans will care about this.”
In other words, people believe that if they mistakenly utter a prayer or incantation or ask for something that they don’t really intend to, an angel is more likely to take into account what the requestor meant, while a devil is more likely to go ahead and grant the request.
One interesting finding of the study – it doesn’t matter if the agent being asked is a supernatural being or human, like a good or evil bureaucrat. “We basically found the same results regardless of whether we had participants think about requests to supernatural beings or ordinary humans,” said Friedman.
So, why is this the case? Why do we believe that good agents care about what you mean, while evil agents care about what you say? Is it because evil agents are not paying attention to their requestor? That they are incapable of understanding their mental state? Or perhaps they just don’t care?
Again, participants of the study seemed to indicate that the main motivation of evil agents was indifference. “That people expected supernatural agents to purposely disregard intentions tells us something very interesting about the perception of what it means to be evil or do evil,” says Dunk. “If participants simply thought that the evil agents were incapable of understanding intention, that just suggests a lack of ability. A disregard for intention, however, is connected to a sort of intuitive understanding of evil wherein the evil-doer knows the consequences of an unintended request and grants it anyway.”
You know what they say – “The Devil is in the Details”.