Sunday Scaries

The psychological concept that may change how you process your emotions

Meet mental life.

head, art, maze

What if you were approached outside an insurance office by a cognitive scientist offering you $5 to answer this question: Can a beetle feel love?”

Your answer may depend on a constellation of influences.

You may think of the last time you squashed a beetle and felt bad about it. Or maybe, you think of the invasive beetle that’s infested your backyard. It may be a gut reaction: Of course beetles feel love. Of course they don’t.

Kara Weisman is part of a research team who asked people around the world this question, along with others like: Do ghosts get hungry? Are robots deserving of moral treatment?

When these answers are pooled, Weisman looks for patterns that inform similarities, and differences in our mental lives. A mental life consists of the thoughts, feelings, and intentions we attribute to others, animals, and inanimate objects. It’s a concept we employ to sort social and moral obligations.

In a study released in August in the journal Nature, Weisman and colleagues interviewed adults and children living across the United States, Ghana, Thailand, China, and the South Pacific island country of Vanuatu. The interview subjects overwhelmingly conceptualize a mind-body distinction within the framework of mental life. This is sometimes called “mind-body dualism” and it refers to thinking of cognitive abilities as different from bodily sensations.

“It looks like there’s some real flexibility in the human mind.”

But the research team also came across significant differences in the way people across the world categorize socio-emotional capabilities.

These differences, the scientists say, may “lead different groups of people to different conclusions about human nature, about why humans do bad things and how society should react, whether to fear or embrace artificial intelligence, and how to interact with any supernatural beings we believe to exist.”

The differences in cultural ideas also offer opportunities, Weisman tells me.

How the discovery was made — This study was part of Stanford University’s Mind and Spirit Project, an academic collaboration that combines the disciplines of anthropology and experimental psychology.

It was an effort to “think about how people understand their minds and how that affects their spiritual and religious experiences,” Weisman explains.

It’s also an extension of the work Weisman was doing for her dissertation at the time. She’s interested in folk philosophy — how people process, explain, and predict the behavior of others.

The study team observed a significant amount of variability when assessing how people categorize social-emotional abilities.

Weisman et. al.

“I was kind of steeped in these sorts of classical questions and trying to figure out ways to understand how ordinary people, non-philosophers, think about the deep things,” she says.

While conducting preliminary research in the United States, Weisman realized seemingly simple, and purposefully child-like questions (“do chickens ever feel sad?”) allowed her to probe the heavy topics without having to ask intimidating questions about the relationship between the mind and body.

“We can use those kinds of lightweight, easy-breezy answers to infer these deeper philosophical ideas that I’m interested in,” she says of her method.

This work informed the “bottom-up approach” the team took to the study. When interviewing U.S. adults, the responses were grouped into three categories:

  • Bodily sensations related to biological means (“get hungry,” “feel pain”)
  • Basic emotions and social abilities (“feel sad,” “feel proud”)
  • Perceptual-cognitive abilities (“remember things”)

These are summed up as the categories heart, body, and mind. And they became launching points for evaluating responses from around the world — although the team emphasizes that “comparisons with US adults are a tool for interpretation, not an assumption of our analyses.”

“This was saying OK, I’m going to throw a whole bunch of questions at people and then I’m going to look at how they’re correlated,’” Weisman says. “In other words, when people say a robot can feel happy, what else do they think robots can do? These groups of correlated questions sort of coalesced into the heart, body, and mind framework.”

Insights into mental life

The five field sites were chosen to capture a range of religious traditions and “a variety of cultural models of the mind.” Adults were recruited in public places, like a bus station, and asked for five minutes of their time. Children were primarily recruited through elementary schools.

“I think this could be useful in managing your own emotions.”

While anthropologists and cultural psychologists have long argued we don’t all understand mental life in the same way, one primary similarity emerged: this distinction between physiological sensations and cognitive abilities, or the body and mind.

“In the most basic sense, what we really demonstrate here is that sometimes people attribute hunger and pain and other bodily things to a being, let’s say a chicken, without attributing anything in the way of cognition and memory to the chicken,” Weisman explains. “And sometimes people attribute cognitive abilities without attributing anything in the way of those bodily abilities.”

“It’s a really strong intuition that bodies are bodies and they’re in the physical world and minds, or souls, are different in that they are kind of not totally in the physical world,” she adds.

Where differences really emerged was in the matter of “heart,” or socio-emotional abilities. For example, participants in the United States, Thailand, and China recognized “heart” abilities as a third, distinct category.

However, there was no clear analog for “heart” across adult participants from Ghana and Vanuatu. In Ghana, for example, emotional statements like “feel love” or “feel proud” — statements that defined “heart” for U.S. participants — were observed as more “mind-like.”

Meanwhile, in Vanuatu, “feel proud” was associated with physiological sensation, and “feel happy” was associated with cognitive abilities.

These variations emerge for a number of reasons, including cultural differences in the value of exposing inner feelings publicly to varying interpretations of certain emotions as positive or negative states, and speaks to “the co-evolution of social systems, moral values, and emotions across cultural settings.”

How to use this information — These findings point to two especially salient points:

  • There are aspects of the human experience that all humans access to or can relate to
  • There are aspects of our experience and our thinking where are different, and this is why different people come to different conclusions about the same things

“There’s a lot of variability in how different people understand emotions — and there’s opportunity there,” Weisman says. “It looks like there’s some real flexibility in the human mind, for how we relate to and understand our emotional lives, and how they fit into the rest of our lives.”

Having multiple ways of understanding emotions suggests people also have multiple ways of understanding their world.

“I think this could be useful in managing your own emotions,” she adds.”If the way you usually think about your emotions isn’t serving you, this study suggests there are other ways of thinking about your emotions, and those could perhaps serve you better.”

In the abstract, these findings help pave the way toward understanding why people feel differently about human-like entities, like animals and robots. How you process emotions influences what mental life you give to others, and in turn, the value you dispense.

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