By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
The idea of the corporate personhood is typically thought of as a "legal fiction" (Schane, 1987). That is, we treat a nonperson as a person so that it makes sense legally to talk about corporate entities doing what people would otherwise do: buying and selling, entering contracts, suing and being sued, etcetera. But does that mode of thinking just reflect a legalistic shortcut, or does it actually capture the way we think about corporations and other "group agents" like governments or private organizations? Yale cognitive science and philosophy professor, Joshua Knobe, sought to find out, and the results are detailed in a recent New York Times "Opinionator" piece.
Noting the ambiguity of legal claims focused on a corporation's "knowledge" or "intent," or "reckless disregard," he and his colleagues (Jenkins et al., 2014) wanted to see if there were any differences in the ways we think of actions by people and by corporations. Armed with an fMRI scanner to read the patterns of brain-region activation, they had the research participants read sentences about individuals and about corporations. These included sentences like, "George thought it really might be possible to make a killing in asparagus sales" versus "United Food Corp. thought that stocks would continue to go up." What the team found is activation in what is called the "Theory of Mind Network," which includes the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ), and the precuneus (PC). This "Theory of Mind" describes the ability "to consider and keep track of what other people feel, know, and believe." So it is no surprise that this region is activated when talking about George and his asparagus. But what is more surprising is that the scientists found no differences when participants were thinking about the mental states of corporations versus the mental states of individuals. "The pattern of activation for these sentences was completely indistinguishable from the one for sentences about individual human beings," they concluded. That provides support for the idea that people make sense of corporations by applying the same "theories of mind" that we apply to individuals. This post discusses the implications of this for your litigation message.