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Causes and consequences of mind perception

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Abstract

Perceiving others' minds is a crucial component of social life. People do not, however, always ascribe minds to other people, and sometimes ascribe minds to non-people (e.g. God, gadgets). This article reviews when mind perception occurs, when it does not, and why mind perception is important. Causes of mind perception stem both from the perceiver and perceived, and include the need for social connection (perceiver) and a similarity to oneself (perceived). Mind perception also has profound consequences for both the perceiver and perceived. Ascribing mind confers an entity moral rights and also makes its actions meaningful. Understanding the causes and consequences of mind perception can explain when this most social of cognitive skills will be used, and why it matters.
Causes and consequences of mind
perception
Adam Waytz
1
, Kurt Gray
2
, Nicholas Epley
3
and Daniel M. Wegner
4
1
Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Northwest Science Building Ste. 290, 52 Oxford St, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA
2
Department of Psychology, 1147 Biology/Psychology Building, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742, USA
3
Booth School of Business, University of Chicago, 5807 S. Woodlawn Ave, Chicago, IL 60637, USA
4
Department of Psychology, Harvard University, 33 Kirkland St., WJH 1470, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA
Perceiving others’ minds is a crucial component of social
life. People do not, however, always ascribe minds to
other people, and sometimes ascribe minds to non-
people (e.g. God, gadgets). This article reviews when
mind perception occurs, when it does not, and why mind
perception is important. Causes of mind perception stem
both from the perceiver and perceived, and include the
need for social connection (perceiver) and a similarity to
oneself (perceived). Mind perception also has profound
consequences for both the perceiver and perceived.
Ascribing mind confers an entity moral rights and also
makes its actions meaningful. Understanding the causes
and consequences of mind perception can explain when
this most social of cognitive skills will be used, and why
it matters.
Mind perception in context
Whether or not something has a mind is sometimes settled
by vote. Five US Supreme Court Justices decided that
corporations have minds that can be expressed, and there-
fore deserve the right of free speech. The remaining four
justices disagreed, saying that ‘‘corporations have no con-
sciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires’’ [1].
Considering non-human animals, the majority of the Span-
ish parliament believed that evidence for the presence of
mind in captive chimpanzees was strong enough to grant
them limited human rights [2]. Even the presence of mind
in other people can be contentious, such as in the case of
Standing Bear, a Native American who sued the U.S.
Government to be recognized as a person. In the seminal
1879 court case, Standing Bear had to describe the reality
of his own mind to the court, saying, ‘‘My hand is not the
color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain’’ [3].
Whether people think that a particular entity has a mind
be it a group or a technological gadget, a God or a dead
person, an unborn fetus or one’s next-door neighbor can
be both crucially important and highly controversial [4].In
this article we present an expanding body of research on
‘mind perception’ [5,6] that investigates how people define
minds, when people perceive minds in others, and why
mind perception matters in everyday life.
Understanding how people think about minds has long
been a fundamental interest in the cognitive sciences. The
inferences people make about minds comprise three basic
research questions. First, do people think a particular
entity has a mind? Second, what state is that other mind
in? Third, what are the behavioral consequences of per-
ceiving a mind in another entity? Most research has
focused on the second question the perception of mental
states that has come to be known as ‘theory of mind’ or
‘mentalizing’ [7,8]. Researchers are now expanding their
attention to the first and third questions about the causes
and consequences of mind perception, respectively a shift
that represents an important emerging trend worthy of
attention.
Recent research demonstrates that people intuitively
think about other mindsin terms of two distinct dimensions:
experience (the capacity to sense and feel) and agency (the
capacity to plan and act) [9]. A similar two-dimensional
representation has emerged independentlyin several differ-
ent research programs, including intuitive representations
of personhood that distinguish between human nature (the
capacity for emotional responsiveness) and human unique-
ness (the capacity for civility, rationality, and morality)
[10,11], and also the two fundamental dimensions of social
evaluation that distinguish between warmth (correspond-
ing to experience) andcompetence (corresponding to agency)
[12]. When people attribute minds to others, it is in terms of
their capacity to ‘feel’, to ‘do’, or both.
Attributing a mind to another agent is complex because
two different minds are involved, the mind of the person
perceiving and the mind of the entity being perceived. This
creates two distinct sets of causes those that stem from
the mind of the person perceiving, and those that stem
from the behavior of the entity being perceived. This also
creates two different sets of consequences of mind percep-
tion those for the person perceiving and those for the
entity being perceived. This 22 structure serves as the
outline for this article (Figure 1).
Causes of mind perception
Perceiver
The capacity to reason about minds is an impressive tool
that nearly all humans possess. People use tools when they
serve immediate goals, and thinking about another’s mind
is useful for achieving two basic goals in everyday life:
understanding, predicting, or controlling another’s beha-
vior, and developing a social connection with another agent
[13]. Factors that trigger these two should therefore
increase the tendency to perceive minds in others.
Causal uncertainly is one of the basic triggers of the
goal for prediction and control. When a car behaves in a
Review
Corresponding author: Waytz, A. (waytz@wjh.harvard.edu).
1364-6613/$ see front matter ß2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2010.05.006 Trends in Cognitive Sciences 14 (2010) 383388 383
perfectly predictable way in response to your actions, it
seems mindless; but when it starts lurching forward while
breaking, or stalling while starting, then your car might
seem to have a mind of its own. This is because mental
states intentions, desires, and feelings are the very
states that best explain the behavior of independent enti-
ties [14]. People consistently use mental states to explain
both human and non-human actions, particularly when
they are under cognitive load and are therefore unable to
generate more elaborate causal explanations [15]. For
instance, cognitive load causes adults to explain natural
events (e.g. why the sun radiates) in terms of purposeful
design (e.g. to nurture life [16])a teleological bias also
found in young children [17] and Alzheimer’s patients [18],
both of whom lack well-developed causal reasoning abil-
ities.
Just as causal uncertainty increases mind perception by
triggering a motivation for understanding, predictability,
and control, so too does lacking personal control. For
example, when people ruminate on experiences in which
they lacked control or are primed with thoughts of random-
ness, they become more likely to believe in an agentic,
controlling God, capable of planning and intention [19,20].
Similarly, when reminded of existential meaninglessness
and powerlessness in the face of death, people become more
likely to believe in agentic Gods and other supernatural
sources of agency [21]. Supernatural agents can provide
power, safety, and the potential for immortality, all of
which increase one’s sense of personal meaning and control
when facing death. In less existentially significant
examples, simply being denied control over a set of animate
marbles increases attributions of intentionality to those
marbles [22], whereas being dispositionally inclined
toward control in daily life increases the attribution of
complex mental capacities to dogs [23].
Other minds not only create a sense of understanding,
they also create a sense of social connection with another
entity. Considering another person’s mental states by
explicitly adopting his or her perspective increases the
perceived similarity between the self and the other person
[24,25]. A motivation to connect with another entity can
likewise trigger thoughts about that entity’s mental states.
Those with a high need to belong identify emotions from
facial and vocal cues more accurately than those with a low
need to belong, suggesting an increased attentiveness to
mental states [26]. Naturally-occurring or situationally-
induced loneliness also causes people to ascribe mental
states to pets and machines, and increases belief in the
presence of invisible minds such as that of God [23,27,28].
Perceived
Although mind is in the eye of the perceiver, characteristics
of the entity being perceived also influence mind percep-
tion. For example, entities that act unpredictably evoke the
need for control, and therefore seem more mindful than
entities that behave predictably [29]. Likewise, entities
that produce negative outcomes also seem more inten-
tional than entities that produce positive outcomes [30],
such that people attribute more intentionality to others
who commit evil deeds than good deeds [31], and express
greater belief in an agentic God when attempting to under-
stand suffering rather than salvation [32]. This is likely
because negative events elicit an increased search for
causal explanations [33].
Non-human entities that resemble humans the pro-
totypical mind-havers are also attributed more mind,
whether they have a humanlike appearance [34] or simply
move at a humanlike speed [35,36] (Box 1). People who are
similar to the self are seen as more mindful as well. In one
study people judged others with similar political beliefs to
be rational, whereas they judged others who held different
beliefs to be less capable of ‘logical analysis’ and holding an
‘objective perspective’ [37]. Liked others also seem more
mindful than disliked others [38]. Conversely, disliked
[(Figure_1)TD$FIG]
Figure 1. The causes and consequences of mind perception for perceiver and perceived.
Review Trends in Cognitive Sciences Vol.14 No.8
384
entities and those different from the self seem more mind-
less. People attribute fewer secondary emotions (e.g. humi-
liation and nostalgia) and mental-state traits (e.g.
imaginative, analytical) to out-group members than in-
group members [10,39,40]. Out-group members evoke less
activation in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), a region
involved in perceiving other minds [41], and are sometimes
likened to animals with diminished mental capacities
[42,43]. People also dehumanize (or dementalize) specific
disliked others, such as another person who rejects them
[44]. Finally, when individuals objectify another person by
focusing solely on the person’s body, attention is diverted
from that person’s mind, making the target appear less
mentally capable [45,46].
Consequences of mind perception
Perceiver
Perceiving mental states in another entity matters to the
perceiver for three main reasons. First, perceiving mental
states in another entity intensifies the perceiver’s psycho-
logical experience of events. A seemingly random event
might have little importance, but the same event intended
by another could seem more significant because it comes
with broader implications intentional events are more
likely to be recurrent, and demand a response. A tree
branch that another person drops on you is more note-
worthy than one that the wind blows down on you [47].
People therefore experience intentional events more inten-
sely than accidental events. An electric shock, for instance,
hurts more when delivered intentionally than accidentally
[48], and an insult intentionally directed at the self triggers
more cognitive processing and rationalization than does
the same insult directed at someone else [49]. Likewise,
people judge intentional harms more harshly than acci-
dental ones [50,51].
Second, other minds can have thoughts, and mindful
others can therefore have thoughts about the perceiver.
Perceivers want to be evaluated positively by others, and
the presence of another surveilling mind can therefore
increase socially desirable behavior. Gods and spirits, for
instance, are presumed by believers to be capable of
monitoring one’s own behavior at all times and in all
places. Priming the presence of a mindful God therefore
prompts less cheating [52], and more generous donations
in an economic exchange [53]. Simply evoking the external
characteristics of a mind (e.g. a pair of eyes) also decreases
cheating [54], and the presence of an audience increases
people’s tendency to uphold a moral code by punishing
wrongdoers. Researchers have suggested that belief in
such surveilling minds is adaptive because it increases
prosocial behaviors that benefit one’s in-group [55,56], and
reduces anti-social behaviors that could lead to punish-
ment or exile [57]. This does not mean that mind percep-
tion is always personally beneficial. Exaggerating the
presence of surveilling minds can have negative implica-
tions for the perceiver, as in the case of paranoid schizo-
phrenics whose overactive mind perception might make
them believe that they are constantly being scrutinized
[58].
Finally, perceiving one mind within a moral context can
compel people to see a second mind. This is because
people’s psychological template for moral events involves
(at least) two minds, one mind to perpetrate the moral act
a moral agent and one mind to receive it a moral patient
[59]. For example, a murder requires both a murderer and
victim; a charitable donation requires both a donor and a
recipient. Thus, when people are wronged or victimized,
they might search for a perpetrator to blame, whether it be
another person [60], animal [61], or God [32]. Conversely,
when people see a perpetrator of wrongdoing, they could
infer the presence of such a victim, a mind harmed by the
act [32].
Perceivers also tend to characterize agents and patients
in terms of their most prominent aspect of mind, ignoring
moral agents’ experience (in the case of perceiving villains
to be insensitive to pain and pleasure) and moral patients’
agency (in the case of perceiving victims to be blameless for
their circumstances) a phenomenon called moral type-
casting [59]. Moral typecasting can explain people’s will-
ingness to harm heroes [59], hesitance to blame victims
[62], and how doing moral deeds can increase personal
agency [63]. The link between mind perception and mor-
ality means that attributing less mind to an entity reduces
its moral status as well. People might therefore assuage
their guilt after harming another person by perceiving
Box 1. Mind perception in the uncanny valley
Mind perception is not necessarily a cold perceptual process, as it
sometimes evokes strong emotional reactions (Figure I). One
emotional response to minds under current investigation is the
‘uncanny valley’ the tendency for a robot to elicit negative
emotional reactions when it closely resembles a human [72]. Robots
that are obviously mechanical seldom produce such emotional
reactions, and presumably, a robot that fully passed as human
would also not prompt an exaggerated emotional response. But a
robot with near-human features such as skin, expression, voice, and
movement, rather than prompting reactions that might also be near
human, often instead provokes feelings of revulsion. This might
occur because abnormal features violate evolutionary esthetics [73],
or because humanoid features remind people of death [74]. Or, it
could be that agency without the capacity for experience adds up to
the perception of a mind that is disturbingly incomplete (Gray and
Wegner, unpublished).
[(Box_1)TD$FIG]
Figure I. The model of Repliee Q2, a humanoid robot that is extremely
uncanny. Image courtesy of Brad Beattie.
Review Trends in Cognitive Sciences Vol.14 No.8
385
them to be relatively mindless [64,65]. That mind percep-
tion is tied so tightly to morality is no coincidence because
moral events consisting of punishment, condemnation,
praise, and reward are fundamentally social events [66].
Perceived
The perception of mind in an entity could alter how people
interact with it because mind perception implies moral
status. Entities capable of experience (moral patients) are
afforded moral rights, whereas entities capable of agency
(moral agents) are afforded moral responsibility [9,67].
Given how readily people anthropomorphize, it is no sur-
prise that people also ascribe moral responsibilities to non-
human entities, such as animals [61] and computers [68].
In some cases, the over-attribution of moral responsibility
can have harmful consequences, such as when parents
ascribe intention to their infants for wrongdoing and abuse
them in retribution [69].
The more serious ethical problem in everyday life,
however, is likely to come from seeing too little mind in
others [4]. If another person is seen as relatively mindless,
then he or she receives diminished moral standing, and
might be treated like an animal or an object. People can
deny mental capacities in two ways that map on to the
dimensions of agency and experience either people are
stripped of uniquely human aspects such as competence
and civility, or human nature aspects such as warmth and
vitality [10,70]. Each of these methods of dehumanization
or dementalization has a consequence for its targets.
Those denied warmth and experience come to seem be
robotic, cold, and cruel [11,12], encouraging active harm
toward them when opportunities arise [71].Thosedenied
competence, civility and agency come to be seen as sub-
servient [71], or animalistic [10,11], licensing people to
contain them against their will and to rob them of human
rights.
Mind matters
The greatest divide in social life is between the direct
experience of one’s own mind and the apparent experiences
of others’ minds (Box 2). Nearly all adults have the capacity
to bridge this divide and reason about the minds of others,
but having the capacity and using it are two different
things. The recent advances highlighted here focus on
the triggers of mind perception and why mind perception
matters, generating a broad array of topics for future
research (Box 3). Understanding mind perception can help
explain the belief in God and intelligent design, the
tendency for people to seek purpose in unexplained events,
and how people can simultaneously see non-human
animals as mindful and other people as mindless. Mind
perception also explains how the perception of intention-
ality creates meaning, how the presence of a surveilling
mind increases cooperation, and how perceiving emotion
and intention can lead people to help and harm or to praise
and punish others. The capacity to get beyond one’s ego-
centric perspective and into the minds of others is surely
one of the human mind’s most impressive abilities. Un-
derstanding mind perception allows us to know when
people will use it.
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The process of perceiving other minds could be one component of a
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transcendence should be correlated, and possibly that improving
performance in one domain (e.g. perspective taking) might also
improve performance in another (e.g. intertemporal choice).
Box 3. Outstanding questions
What policy implications does mind perception have for eutha-
nasia, abortion, animal rights and other debates stemming from
the ambiguity of mind?
How effective is mind perception for satisfying the motivation for
understanding, predictability, and control? Does perceiving
another mind satisfy the need for social connection?
Is the process of mind perception the same across all perceived
targets (e.g. groups versus individuals)?
In which direction is the link between morality and mind
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them?
Can mind perception both the tendency to consider the minds of
others and the accuracy of doing so be systematically increased
or trained? If so, does it generalize to other tasks that require
transcending one’s current experience of the here and now?
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