Thursday, January 20, 2011

Distortions of mind perception in psychopathology

A really interesting perspective comes from Daniel Wegner and co-workers in the Psychology Dept. at Harvard. (Wegner's book, "The Illusion of Conscious Will" is in my cannon of must-read books on self and consciousness). From their introduction:

Originally thought to proceed along a single dimension, mind perception has been revealed in a factor-analytic study to occur along independent dimensions of experience (e.g., the capacity for pleasure, fear, hunger) and agency (e.g., the capacity for self-control, planning, memory. Adult humans are typically seen as capable of both experience and agency, whereas children and animals are seen as capable of mainly experience. Gods and robots are seen as capable of mainly agency, and the dead are seen as capable of neither.

We suggest that a number of disorders may be characterized as specific distortions of mind perception, atypical ascriptions of mental capacities to other entities....Successful interaction with the world requires knowing which entities have minds and which do not. Mind perception can therefore be distorted by overperception (perceiving a nonexistent mind) and underperception (failing to perceive an existent mind). Research suggests that both can be associated with adverse consequences for perceivers and targets, consequences that range from social faux pas to violence and death. For example, the overperception of mind in infants can lead to child abuse, but the underperception of mind in adults can lead to the denial of moral rights.
Their abstract:
It has long been known that psychopathology can influence social perception, but a 2D framework of mind perception provides the opportunity for an integrative understanding of some disorders. We examined the covariation of mind perception with three subclinical syndromes—autism-spectrum disorder, schizotypy, and psychopathy—and found that each presents a unique mind-perception profile. Autism-spectrum disorder involves reduced perception of agency in adult humans. Schizotypy involves increased perception of both agency and experience in entities generally thought to lack minds. Psychopathy involves reduced perception of experience in adult humans, children, and animals. Disorders are differentially linked with the over- or underperception of agency and experience in a way that helps explain their real-world consequences.

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