The Medusa Effect: We Ascribe Less “Mind” To People We See In Pictures

By Emma Young

Much has been written about the downsides of home-working. “Zoom fatigue”, in particular, is now a term, and an experience, that many of us are familiar with. But the tiring effect of video chat could represent only one of its dangers, according to new work in PNAS. It finds that we ascribe less “mind” to people we see in image form, vs in the flesh, and even less again to images of images of people. There could be serious implications, write Paris Will at the University of British Columbia and colleagues: “Given that mind perception underpins moral judgement, our findings suggest that depicted persons will receive greater or lesser ethical consideration, depending on the level of abstraction.”

When we assess the extent to which a creature or thing has a mind, we judge it on on two factors: “Experience” and “Agency”. Mental experience relates to conscious feelingsto feeling pain or happiness, for example; an animal judged to rank higher for Experience is generally judged to have more intrinsic moral worth as well. Agency, meanwhile, refers to the ability to actively do something — to act, to influence the course of events.

In a series of online and lab-based experiments, Will and colleagues explored how seeing a person in the flesh, versus in photo, versus in an image of a photo might affect participants’ judgements of that person’s levels of Experience and Agency as well as how “real” they seemed. In one experiment, for example, one group of participants compared a live face of a student volunteer against a life-size photograph of the face of another volunteer; a second group of participants looked at a photo showing the face of one volunteer who was also holding up a photo of the face of the other volunteer (both faces in this image were the same size). The team consistently found that greater abstraction was associated with lower judgements of Experience, Agency and Realness. In one experiment, they also found impacts on behaviour: participants in a version of the classic “dictator game” allocated significantly more money to recipients whose faces they saw in an image, compared with in an image of an image.

“It may not be surprising that mind perception differs for pictures versus reality,” the researchers write. “What is more surprising is that mind perception differs between pictures and pictures of pictures.” They dub this the “Medusa effect”, after the mythical Ancient Greek Gorgon who would turn a person into stone only if they looked at her directly, but not at her reflected image.

As the team notes, there has been a big shift in the past decade (and the last two pandemic years, especially) from face-to-face to online interaction. This clearly shifts the level of abstraction. All of the faces in their study were static, so it’s hard to know how movement of an image of face — as in a video chat — might affect perceptions of mind. But there are other contexts in which these specific results are directly applicable: the researchers point to photographic evidence in a virtual trial; visual materials presented by teachers in online lessons; and photos of victims shared by cyber-bullies. “In all of these settings, outcomes hinge on the sensitivity to the minds of others — precisely what is lost with an extra layer of abstraction.”

Future work might also explore individual differences in susceptibility to the Medusa effect. But for now, the work clearly suggests a new reason to be cautious about online vs real world interactions.

The Medusa effect reveals levels of mind perception in pictures

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest