Corporate personhood – the idea that business entities may have some of the same legal rights and responsibilities as human beings – is a contentious legal concept. However, in his recent Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal (Our Brains Say Corporations Are People, Too), neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky cited studies showing that as far as the human brain is concerned, corporate personhood is not merely a legal concept.
Quoting a portion of that column (emphasis added):
Nothing about primate sociality predicts that corporations should constitute vaguely animate entities in our minds. Yet they do. This mind-set is shown most controversially with that strange American legal concept of “corporate personhood.” Research suggests that this is less of a metaphor than you’d think.
In research published last year in the journal Social Neuroscience, Mark Plitt at Baylor College of Medicine and colleagues presented some of their 40 subjects with vignettes of actions taken by humans or corporations that were either prosocial (e.g., donating money), neutral (e.g., buying a printer) or antisocial (e.g., breaking the law). As a control, the other subjects got Wikipedia descriptions of randomly chosen nouns. What were people’s responses to human and corporate actions?
There was a small negative skew about corporations—their prosocial acts elicited less positive emotions, and their neutral or antisocial acts elicited more negative emotions than did the equivalents by humans.
Subjects also underwent functional brain imaging while reading those vignettes. You’d expect different profiles of brain activation when contemplating the actions of corporations and humans, given how we ascribe different causes to their behaviors. For example, we might view rotten corporate behavior as arising from shareholder pressure, foreign trade imbalances or lax regulatory environments. By contrast, we might view rotten human behavior as rooted in unloving parents, a lack of empathy or personal troubles. But there was a surprise.
When subjects contemplated human actions (as compared with attributes of inanimate objects), there was activation of a familiar brain network involved in “mentalizing”—that is, performing social cognition tasks such as understanding someone else’s motives and perspectives. And when subjects contemplated corporate actions (as compared with inanimate objects)? The researchers saw activation of that same mentalizing network. In other words, people used similar parts of the brain to understand corporate and human behavior.
Does this finding support or weaken the corporate personhood concept in general? Neither, the authors wisely state. But it constitutes further evidence of the ambiguity as to who and what qualifies for personhood. At least one European legislature has granted personhood to other apes. The first legal challenges regarding personhood for robots could be just around the corner. At the same time, as psychologist Susan Fiske of Princeton has shown, we don’t necessarily activate that mentalizing network as much when contemplating people who are “Others” to us, such as the homeless.
Given that, as Professor Sapolsky notes, the human brain is flexible concerning who or what qualifies for personhood, we should not be surprised that the law has shown flexibility, as well.
Dana H. Shultz, Attorney at Law +1 510-547-0545 dana [at] danashultz [dot] com
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