Our brains respond to corporations as if they are people

Do corporations, like people, have moral rights and responsibilities?

The US Supreme Court has recently made a number of rulings that suggest it sees corporations as having similar rights and responsibilities to individual human beings, such as that they have the right to free speech, and can be exempt from laws that contradict their owner’s religious beliefs. Can a new neuroimaging study help us determine whether the Court’s approach is justified?

Forty participants viewed written vignettes while their brains were scanned, each describing a pro-social, anti-social or neutral action committed either by a person or a corporation. An example of an anti-social vignette was a freelance gardener or a gardening company deciding to charge an invalid falsely, for work they didn’t carry out.

When David Eagleman, and his colleagues Mark Plitt and Ricky Savjani, directly compared the corporation and person conditions they found no significant differences in brain activity. Moreover, compared to a neutral baseline (descriptions of objects not performing a social action), there were a number of common areas of activation in response to individual people or corporations, with Eagleman’s team particularly interested in an area of the medial prefrontal cortex previously implicated in predicting mental states and discriminating emotion. They argue this is significant because past studies have shown deactivations in this area when manipulations present human beings as dehumanised, so you might expect to find a difference in this area when viewing a non-human target – but this was not the case for corporations.

After viewing each vignette, participants were also asked to make an evaluation of how they were feeling – a rating of intensity of a menu of feelings including “admiration” or “indignation” – and this data did point to a difference: humans behaving pro-socially were met with stronger approval than were corporations, and misbehaving corporations made participants angrier.

This sense that corporations are judged more harshly is consistent with a finding from the imaging data that the superior temporal gyrus, an area that responded differently for positive versus negative actions, responded in the “negative” way for corporation’s neutral actions. Previous work has also suggested that we take unethical corporate behaviour as a strong predictor of future behaviour but we are more lenient when it comes to people, as to err is human.

Can we gain any legal insight from these findings? They could be seen as an endorsement of the extension of rights to corporations. On the other hand, we could argue that our brains are simply doing their best to model the active intrusions of corporations into our lives, by treating them more like people than inanimate objects. But this wouldn’t make this an acceptable situation; in fact, low tolerance for corporate actions could suggest that we resent the people-like status that corporations already have. Ultimately, as a question of how society ought to be, science can provide insights, but not answers.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Plitt, M., Savjani, R., & Eagleman, D. (2014). Are corporations people too? The neural correlates of moral judgments about companies and individuals Social Neuroscience, 10 (2), 113-125 DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2014.978026

further reading
Investigating the personality of companies

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.