This award is funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Public Law 111-5).

We can not perceive other minds the way we perceive our own. So, we can not look into the mind of a patient in a persistent vegetative state to see if "someone is home," just as we can not really know what is going on in the mind of an infant or an animal, or even figure out if it makes any sense to think of a computer as having a mind. Mind perception can be profoundly puzzling, and this research pursues the recent finding that people usually try to solve the puzzle by perceiving minds in terms of two fundamental dimensions -- a mind's capacity for experience (Can it feel things?) and a mind's capacity for agency (Can it do things?). People see normal adult humans as having both experience and agency, whereas they see some kinds of minds primarily as having experiences (e.g., babies), others mainly in terms of agency (e.g., robots), and yet others as having little of either (e.g., a person in a persistent vegetative state). To examine how experience and agency are perceived, this research focuses a series of experiments and large online surveys on how these two dimensions shape judgments of people and other entities with various kinds of minds. The studies explore how mind perception can be biased by exposure to particular kinds of minds, how mind perception breaks down when perceivers are under mental load or stress, how judgments of the quality of a person's life can depend on the dimensions, how the dimensions contribute to judgments of humanness, and how they influence the way different minds are treated in a moral sense--for example, holding them responsible for actions or extending them help when they are in trouble. The findings are expected to offer new insight into the ways people understand entities in the world that may have minds, but whose status is puzzling because they do not conform easily to the way we conceptualize the normal adult human mind.

This project marks an attempt to consider scientifically some of the more profound and difficult moral questions we face as a species. Issues of where we ought to draw the line in perceiving minds -- the minds of children, animals, brain-damaged people, or even computers -- can be informed by examining where and how we do draw a line. In exploring how people go about deciding that something has a mind, this research illuminates key conditions that can increase and decrease mind perception, and sets the foundation for identifying the brain areas implicated in these perceptual processes. Findings from this research can have significant social impact by revealing how mind perception can be improved: for example, how physicians can be trained to perceive the minds of patients with appropriate empathy, or how teachers can be guided to appreciate the minds of students in ways that will help the students to learn. Finally, because deficits in mind perception may accompany mental disorders, this research can also be useful to inform psychological treatment programs for disorders such as autism, personality disorders, and schizophrenia. It has often been hypothesized that psychological treatments can be effective when they remedy specific lapses in mind perception abilities, but this research offers new ways to understand the influence of such treatments that may substantially enhance their chances of success.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Sally Dickerson
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Harvard University
United States
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