The Neural Bases of Directed and Spontaneous Mental State Attributions to Group Agents

<div><p>In daily life, perceivers often need to predict and interpret the behavior of group agents, such as corporations and governments. Although research has investigated how perceivers reason about individual members of particular groups, less is known about how perceivers reason about group agents themselves. The present studies investigate how perceivers understand group agents by investigating the extent to which understanding the ‘mind’ of the group as a whole shares important properties and processes with understanding the minds of individuals. Experiment 1 demonstrates that perceivers are sometimes willing to attribute a mental state to a group as a whole even when they are not willing to attribute that mental state to any of the individual members of the group, suggesting that perceivers can reason about the beliefs and desires of group agents over and above those of their individual members. Experiment 2 demonstrates that the degree of activation in brain regions associated with attributing mental states to individuals—i.e., brain regions associated with mentalizing or theory-of-mind, including the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), and precuneus—does not distinguish individual from group targets, either when reading statements about those targets' mental states (directed) or when attributing mental states implicitly in order to predict their behavior (spontaneous). Together, these results help to illuminate the processes that support understanding group agents themselves.</p></div>