A new study suggests whether the act is intentional or not helps us perceive how harmful it is.
The research shows that people overestimate the monetary cost of intentional harm, even when they are given a financial incentive to be accurate.
Daniel Ames and Susan Fiske of Princeton University, said that the law already recognizes intentional harm as more wrong than unintentional harm.
They said that it assumes that people can assess compensatory damages - what it would cost to make a person 'whole' again - independently of punitive damages.
According to Ames and Fiske, people might not only penalize intentional harm more, but actually perceive it as intrinsically more damaging.
In their first experiment, the duo asked participants to read a vignette about a profit-sharing company in which the CEO made a poor financial investment and cost his employees part of their paycheck.
Participants who were informed that the CEO made a poor investment intentionally - so that employees would work harder for profits in the future - perceived the paycheck cut as more damaging to employees and their families than participants who were told the CEO simply made an investment mistake, despite the fact that the employees suffered the same exact financial loss in each scenario.
Participants were motivated to "build a case" against the CEO who caused intentional harm, so they exaggerated how much harm had been done, Ames and Fiske explain.
In two additional studies, participants read about a town that was faced with a crippling water shortage, and were asked the estimate the sum of monetary damages caused by the drought as they appeared in quick succession on a computer screen (e.g. 80 dollars to replace lost medical supplies, 600-dollar-worth of crop loss).
Participants who thought that a drought caused the shortage estimated the amount of damages accurately-within about 100 dollars. But those who were told that a man intentionally diverted the water estimated way over the mark - about 2,200 dollars more. This bias persisted even when people were given a financial incentive to be accurate.
The research has been published in Psychological Science.