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Psychologists explore how people conceive of human experience


“Is a beetle capable of experiencing joy?” and “Is a robot capable of experiencing guilt?” were just some of the unusual questions that Stanford psychologists posed to participants in a recent research study about human conceptions of mental life.

Kara Weisman, Ph.D. student in psychology and the study’s lead author, along with psychology professors Carol Dweck and Ellen Markman, asked 1,400 adults questions about the mental capacities of beings and inanimate objects to learn how people conceive of abstract human experiences such as consciousness and emotion.

According to the research paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Oct. 11, the team found that Americans have a three-part conceptual structure of mental life – the three parts being body, heart and mind. “Body” refers to physical experiences of pain and hunger, “heart” describes social and emotional experiences such as joy and pride, and “mind” applies to cognitive capacities such as memory and vision.

The finding contrasts with previous work on the subject and could change how researchers think about human social behavior and ethical reasoning.

Weisman told Stanford News that the study’s questions were designed to help participants sidestep the challenge of discussing abstract issues such as the nature of life and consciousness directly. Rather than interpret each response individually, the researchers sought to discover similarities and contrasts across each participants’ answers to 40 different questions they were posed.

“Our primary interest was really in the patterns of people’s answers to these questions,” Weisman said. “So, when a certain person thought a robot could think or remember things, what else did they think it was capable of doing? By looking at the patterns in people’s responses to these questions, we could infer the underlying, conceptual structure.”

The three major groups of mental capacities — body, heart and mind — emerged from analysis of these patterns across over 1,000 respondents.

To control for potential confounding factors such as the framing of the questions, researchers altered the experimental setup in different phases of the study. For instance, some participants were asked to assess beings individually, while others were explicitly told to compare different beings with each other. The team found that despite variations in the details of the language and setup, the three categories of mental experience were plainly recognizable in every phase of the study.

According to Weisman, the Stanford study challenges the precedent in mind perception research set by a 2007 psychology study conducted at Harvard University, which proposed a two-part structure of mental life: experience  or the ability to feel guilt and hunger, and agency, or the ability to make plans or control one’s impulses.

One possible application of the body-heart-mind model lies in enhancing social relationships as well as people’s relationships with technology, those behind the study said. Researchers said that if humans view a robot as possessing a “mind” rather than being a mere machine, they may be better able to think of robots as humans, improving the quality of the interaction.

The framework could also shed light on how to reduce dehumanization among people, the researchers say. For example, objectification might take the form of emphasizing a person’s body over the mind and heart, while other forms of prejudice and stereotyping might take the form of focusing only on people’s “minds” and neglecting their emotional life, or focusing only on people’s “hearts” and underestimating their intellectual abilities. The scholars argue the body-mind-heart model may provide a useful perspective for understanding how and why people enhance or reduce mental capacities within those three major clusters.

“This is an exciting new framework, but it’s just the beginning,” Dweck said. “We hope it can serve as a takeoff point for theory and research on how ordinary people think about age-old questions about the mind.”

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Fangzhou Liu ’19 was Vol. 253 Executive Editor; before that, she co-led the news section. She grew up in Singapore and studies computer science and linguistics.