Action Embellishment: An Intention Bias in the Perception of Success

Jesse Lee Preston, Ryan S. Ritter, Daniel M. Wegner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Naïve theories of behavior hold that actions are caused by an agent's intentions, and the subsequent success of an action is measured by the satisfaction of those intentions. However, when an action is not as successful as intended, the expected causal link between intention and action may distort perception of the action itself. Four studies found evidence of an intention bias in perceptions of action. Actors perceived actions to be more successful when given a prior choice (e.g., choose between 2 words to type) and also when they felt greater motivation for the action (e.g., hitting pictures of disliked people). When the intent was to fail (e.g., singing poorly), choice led to worse estimates of performance. A final experiment suggested that intention bias works independent from self-enhancement motives. In observing another actor hit pictures of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, shots were distorted to match the actor's intentions, even when it opposed personal wishes. Together these studies indicate that judgments of action may be automatically distorted and that these inferences arise from the expected consistency between intention and action in agency.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)233-244
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of personality and social psychology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 2011


  • Action
  • Intention
  • Perceptual distortion
  • Self-enhancement

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Action Embellishment: An Intention Bias in the Perception of Success'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this