Character  &  Context

Does a group have a mind of its own?

Image of American flag flying in a cityscape with skyscrapers
“[…] a corporation is an abstraction. It has no mind of its own any more than it has a body of its own.”

- Viscount Richard Haldane, Lennard's Carrying v Asiatic Petroleum, 1915

A new study suggests that people have a tendency to reason about whole group agents, like corporations, as though they have minds of their own. A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision drew widespread attention when it extended First Amendment rights—including the right to free speech—to a corporation. In the nationwide backlash that followed, a chorus of lawmakers and other citizens insisted that corporations are not people and, accordingly, should not be treated as people. To do so, they argued, would be to infringe upon the rights of actual human beings.

Although this decision was met with fresh fervor, the notion of so-called corporate personhood has stirred up legal and philosophical debate for at least the last four centuries. Following a common law case over which he presided in 1612, Sir Edward Coke famously pronounced that corporations “may not commit treason, nor be outlawed, nor excommunicated, for they have no souls”. In the United States, rights typically granted to individuals were extended to corporations as early as 1819, leading to public outcry with which Thomas Jefferson is reported to have sympathized, and in 1886, corporations were officially recognized as people with respect to the Fourteenth Amendment in a decision that continued to be the subject of criticism decades later.

(What) do corporations want?

Given widespread resistance to the idea that a lifeless, soulless corporation might be treated as a person, it is somewhat curious that, at least on the surface, people themselves seem to speak about corporations as though they possess minds like real people do. For example, you may have read recently that “Facebook thinks you’re too gullible for satire”, or that “Microsoft wants its smartphone screens to touch you back”.  In these cases, words typically applied to the mind of an individual person—words like thinks and wants—have been applied to a corporation as a whole. Indeed, recent research confirms that people use sentences like these spontaneously and often.

On one hand, applying words like “thinks” and “wants” to a corporation may just be convenient shorthand that people use without really attributing mental states like beliefs and desires to whole corporations. On the other hand, perhaps this way of speaking actually reflects a deeper tendency to reason about corporations as though they have minds of their own.

Perceiving corporations and people

Surprisingly, very little is known about how people actually reason about group agents, like corporations, themselves. In a recent paper, we took a stab at this question using a combination of behavioral and fMRI studies to see whether understanding a group agent shares important properties and processes with understanding an individual person.

In a behavioral study, we examined whether the apparent mental states (beliefs and desires) of group agents were separable from the mental states of the individual people in the group. For example, our participants considered one scenario about a planning committee on which half of the members preferred one kind of music, the other half preferred a second kind of music, and so it was ultimately decided that a third kind of music would be played (the full set of stimuli is available here). After reading the scenario, some participants were asked if it was appropriate to say that the committee wanted to play the third kind of music, while other participants were asked whether it was appropriate to say that some, or any, of the members wanted to play the third kind of music.

Strikingly, we found that participants were willing to attribute beliefs and desires to a group agent even when they didn't attribute those beliefs and desires to any of the group’s members. In response to the scenario described above, participants overwhelmingly reported that the committee—the group agent—wanted to play the third kind of music but that none of the individual members wanted to play that kind of music.

Strikingly, we found that participants were willing to attribute beliefs and desires to a group agent even when they didn't attribute those beliefs and desires to any of the group’s members.

In this and other cases, participants appeared to attribute a mental state to a group agent itself, over and above its members. On its own, however, this evidence doesn’t rule out the possibility that what people were attributing to group agents might not have been a mental state, or that when they attributed that state, they might have used a different set of different cognitive machinery than the one they use when they attribute mental states to individual people.

Reasoning about the minds of individuals and the "minds" of group agents both activated brain regions associated with theory-of-mind.

In an fMRI study, we tested this by investigating the brain regions that people use when they appear to attribute mental states to group agents. In particular, a specific set of brain regions, known collectively as the theory-of-mind-network, is more active when participants attribute mental states to individual people than when they do other sorts of things. For example, regions in this network are more engaged when participants play a strategy game against a person than when they play the same game against a robot, and the regions are more active when participants represent a person’s outdated belief than when they represent the content of an outdated photograph. We used an independent task to localize the regions in the theory-of-mind network and then examined how they responded when people read and made predictions about group agents versus individual people (compared to a control condition; the full list of stimuli is available here). 

Consistent with the possibility that people attribute human-like beliefs and desires to group agents, we observed indistinguishable activation across the theory-of-mind network when participants considered the “minds” of group agents and the minds of individual people, both of which were associated with greater activation than the control condition.

Together, these studies suggest that people have a tendency to reason about group agents in ways that are very similar to the ways in which they reason about individual people. Of course, this is not to say that group agents like corporations necessarily should be treated like people. What it does suggest, however, is that in order to understand how people make decisions involving corporations, terrorist organizations, governments, and other group agents, it may be important to note that when people look at groups like these, they may sometimes see the "mind" of the group agent as a whole—almost as though a group agent were an individual person itself.


jenkins_photoAdrianna Jenkins received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Harvard University in 2012 and is now a postdoc at UC Berkeley. She uses a combination of behavioral, neuroimaging, and neuropsychological approaches to investigate prefrontal contributions to social cognition, prospection, and decision-making. You can visit her website here, find her publications here, and reach her at adrianna.jenkins@berkeley.edu.

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