The scientific explanation for why we get so mad at corporations

It’s hard to feel sorry for a company.
It’s hard to feel sorry for a company.
Image: Jeff Fusco/AP Images for Comcast
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It’s easy for people to get mad at corporations. We’re angry at pharmaceutical companies like Valeant for jacking up drug prices and at McDonald’s for paying its workers low wages. Volkswagen took heat for cheating on emissions testing, and eight years after the financial crisis, the American public is still furious with big banks. Meanwhile, customers are probably fuming at cable companies and airlines on Twitter at this very moment.

Yet people are almost never sympathetic toward companies or concerned on their behalf. Nobody’s shedding a tear for J.Crew over its falling sales, or pitying the soft-drink companies that may be hurt by the United Kingdom’s new sugar tax. If a corporation goes bankrupt, we may be saddened to think of the employees who will lose their jobs, or feel nostalgic about the memories we associate with it. But we don’t typically feel pity for the company itself.

Why is it that people can easily see companies as villains, but rarely as victims? Research suggests that the answer lies in the way humans conceive of the corporate mind.

It might seem ridiculous to suggest that corporations have minds in the first place. But the issue is not so cut and dry. Think of a complex computer algorithm that predicts stock prices, or an autonomous car that drives itself around San Francisco. These objects can make plans, execute actions and remember information. We associate all of these capabilities with a mind.

In our book The Mind Club: Who Thinks, What Feels and Why it Matters, we reveal that minds are less a matter of fact, and more a matter of perception. And research reveals that people do think that corporations have minds. When people are placed in a fMRI scanner, the same areas of the brain are active when they think about the mental states of corporations as when they think about those of people.

But some mental states are easier for us to imagine than others. It makes intuitive sense for us to ask what corporations want, or what they are planning. We’re more hesitant, however, to ponder whether a company feels joy, sadness or pain.

Research led by the experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe revealed this effect by having people rate the “naturalness” of a number of sentences about a company called Acme Corp. People thought that it was perfectly natural to say “Acme Corp. intends to release a new product,” or “It believes that its profit margin will soon increase.” But they resisted the idea of saying that “Acme Corp. is experiencing great joy,” or “It is feeling excruciating pain.” People see corporations as thinkers but not feelers—a finding affirmed in our own studies.

Our research shows that our perceptions tend to categorize the minds of non-humans along two independent lines: one for thinking and one for feeling. For example, we perceive animals as feelers, and robots as thinkers. We also think of corporations as thinkers, capable of agency but not experiences. In our imaginations, “corporations are cyborgs,” as researchers at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management put it.

All this is important because our perceptions of the minds of others form the basis for our moral judgments. In criminal cases, we consider whether the accused has the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong when determining their guilt, which is why children receive less blame than adults. Children are also seen to be greater feelers than adults—more sensitive and vulnerable—which is another reason why we give them less blame. That corporations seem to be invulnerable thinkers means that people are quite quick to assign them blame.

Another reason the general public is more likely to direct anger, but not sympathy, toward corporations is companies they lack biological bodies.That makes it difficult to imagine how exactly corporations could suffer—or how we could punish them for wrongdoing, thereby wiping clean the moral slate.

Since corporations themselves can’t feel the isolation of prison, the public tends to find their punishments unsatisfying. Large fines levied against misbehaving companies don’t slake our thirst for justice. This can help explain the public pressure for individual employees—typically high-ranking officials—to suffer for corporate malfeasance.

Companies’ lack of corporeality also means that we’re more likely to be suspicious of them. We think of corporations as omnipresent. Amazon, Apple and Facebook are always with us, and we worry (reasonably) about exactly what they’re doing with all the information they gather. It’s no wonder corporations are so quick to be implicated in conspiracy theories.

But it’s not all bad news for corporations. Many people appreciate Apple for designing user-friendly products and feel grateful to Seamless for delivering Pad Thai to their doorsteps at 10 pm. Even if companies can’t get our sympathy, they can receive our admiration for giving back to the community or displaying customer loyalty.

For corporations, the key takeaway is that they shouldn’t even try to be victims. No one buys the suffering of an entity that can’t cry. So the best way for companies to court public opinion is to embrace their perceived power for thinking—and focus on thinking good thoughts.