Fuzzy Personhood

"Seeing human" is critical for social life.

Posted May 10, 2010

The natural sciences have recently demonstrated that chimpanzees grieve for the loss of loved ones, that plants are capable of recognizing their siblings, and that Poplar trees can feel stressed out. These remarkable findings imply that the world all around us is becoming more human. A moment's reflection, however, suggests that the question of what exactly is human is an extremely difficult one, even for those whose job is to decide just that. For example, when a group of paleontologists discovered two partial, two-million year-old skeletons in South Africa last month, naming them Australopithecus sediba and declaring them a previously unknown direct ancestor to our genus, homo, considerable controversy resulted. The central dispute in the paleontology community is whether it is accurate to consider A. sediba "one of us"--whether it is human--with the debate largely focusing on the size and form of the skeletons' teeth and pelvis.

Given that most of us are not paleontologists, it turns out that we do something quite different when we decide what is human. Psychological research suggests that rather than fixating on the pelvis, we think about whether or not a particular entity has a mind. For example, the issue of mind was central the recent Supreme Court decision to deem the McCain-Feingold Act unconstitutional and to allow corporations and unions to contribute to political campaigns. Those who supported this decision argued that these groups deserved the same first amendment rights as mindful humans, whereas those in dissent, such as Justice Stevens, considered this a mischaracterization:

Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their ‘personhood' often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of "We the People" by whom and for whom our Constitution was established...The fact that corporations are different from human beings might seem to need no elaboration, except that the majority opinion almost completely elides it.

This case speaks to the importance of whether or not we consider liminally human entities to be human. Some of my recent work with John Cacioppo and Nick Epley suggests additional reasons why "seeing human" is critical for social life. In this research that appears in a new article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, we constructed a questionnaire--the individual differences in anthropomorphism questionnaire (IDAQ)--to measure people's general tendency to see nature, technology, and nonhuman animals to have mental states (e.g., intentions, emotions, consciousness). We then had people complete different tasks that measured moral care and concern for nonhumans, trust in nonhumans, and the tendency to portray oneself in a favorable light in the presence of a nonhuman robot.

Individuals who were the most likely to anthropomorphize showed greater moral concern for nonhumans, stating that it was more morally wrong to destroy something like a bed of flowers or a motorcycle. These results suggest that granting something a mind makes it capable of experiencing pain, and should therefore not be harmed. People who scored high on the IDAQ were also the most likely to trust technological agents to perform a variety of tasks, ranging from diagnosing a heart attack to selecting the best college football team in the country.  Granting an entity a mind also means that it can think and plan, making it seem more capable of performing complex tasks. Finally, those who anthropomorphized most were most likely to give socially desirable answers (e.g., stating that they have never taken advantage of someone, and always "practice what they preach")--all of this on a computerized questionnaire ostensibly administered by a robot that appeared on the screen. These findings suggest that people high in anthropomorphism perceived the robot to have a mind capable of judging and evaluating them, and they acted accordingly.

These simple demonstrations provide preliminary support for why anthropomorphism--the tendency to grant minds to nonhuman things--is so influential for our interactions with the world around us. Perceiving minds gives entities moral rights, responsibilities, and the capacity for social surveillance. As scientific advances reveal extraordinary capacities of nonhuman things, and as questions of personhood become increasingly fuzzy, understanding why "seeing human" matters has never been more important.