By Brian Davis & Peter Schmitt
“Corporations are people” - or at least Mitt Romney thought so. The former presidential candidate made this memorable quote at the Iowa State Fair in 2012 as he defended the Supreme Court ruling (Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission, 2010) which allowed corporations to donate limitless amounts of money to political action committees . This comparison was met with harsh criticism by some who felt that Romney was defending the growing wealth disparity and support by others who claimed that Romney was defending the strength of American capitalism. The comparison of a corporation to a human being may seem bizarre, but recent research in social psychology shows us that, since mind is a matter of perception, even non-biological entities can be seen as having minds (e.g. self-driving car, automated vacuum cleaner).
The psychological phenomenon known as mind perception tells us that there are two distinct qualities that lead us to believe that something has a mind: agency, the capacity to do, and experience, the capacity to feel. Most of us don’t perceive a stone as being capable of experiencing pain or pleasure, or carrying out autonomous actions. Subsequently, we would not attribute mind to a rock. Furthermore, we classify objects differently depending on how much agency and experience we perceive them as having. In the case of a corporation, such as Google, we would be much more inclined to perceive it as a God-like entity than a human entity.
The Corporate and the Divine Mind
Don’t expect the next presidential candidates to make that comparison, but research shows a clear parallel between how we perceive a corporate conglomerate and the omnipotent prime-mover. When we examine research done on morality and the “divine mind,” we find that God is perceived as having agency, but not experience. Situations that involve moral judgment in which the agent cannot be identified result in ascription of causality (and importantly, intention) to an ultimate agent (God), which causes the immoral act to happen. According to the dyadic template of moral typecasting, this infinitely powerful agent would also be perceived as infinitely low in experience.
We can understand “corporate minds” as having high agency and low experience due to their role in our world. Corporations, like the God of Abrahamic religions, are the “doers” in contemporary times – they make things happen. In the global market, corporate entities are able to dictate how they want laws to be written to lawmakers in developing (and sometimes developed) countries. We perceive corporations as being able to create jobs, influence our global ecosystem and change the way we experience the world, for better or for worse, with their innovative ideas and monetary power. Unlike Romney’s comparison, corporations are becoming so influential in our daily lives that we now perceive them in a way similar to how we perceive God.
Why Corporations Can Escape Punishment
Corporations are becoming increasingly powerful and influential in our world. Yet, while we may see these omnipotent agents as causing us harm, we are still unlikely to distrust them. We tend to defend and support external control mechanisms that fit into our world view as a way of reducing cognitive dissonance. Could one’s firm belief in the benefits and superiority of capitalism be causing similar trust in the corporate machine despite its abusive behavior? Science says yes. If we attribute the “good” in the world to the economic practice of capitalism, we are more likely to support and defend it despite its flaws.
But it could also be that, because of the God-like lack of experience, we do not gripe about corporations or government to the same degree we do people. Devoted religious followers teach us to accept everything that happens as a result of God’s will. They come to accept whatever happens, no matter how painful or difficult, as being a part of the divine plan. It would appear that entities with this level of agency and void of experience may be beyond the realm of punishment, and even beyond blame. Despite the fact that we consistently see news reports of corporate malfeasance, from the subprime mortgage crisis to money laundering for drug cartels, corporations, especially the larger and more powerful ones (e.g., international banks) may be able to escape justifiable punishment for these actions as a result of their “divine minds.” Although sometimes individuals within the corporate elite are sometimes punished for their crimes, typically the way in which we view powerful corporations does not change. Are corporations too big to fail, or rather too God-like to punish?