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.
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.
“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: