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«Are Artworks More Like People Than Artifacts? Individual Concepts and Their Extensions George E. Newman,a Daniel M. Bartels,b Rosanna K. Smitha a ...»

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Topics in Cognitive Science (2014) 1–16

Copyright © 2014 Cognitive Science Society, Inc. All rights reserved.

ISSN:1756-8757 print / 1756-8765 online

DOI: 10.1111/tops.12111

Are Artworks More Like People Than Artifacts?

Individual Concepts and Their Extensions

George E. Newman,a Daniel M. Bartels,b Rosanna K. Smitha


School of Management, Yale University


University of Chicago Booth School of Business

Received 16 July 2013; received in revised form 20 February 2014; accepted 14 April 2014 Abstract This paper examines people’s reasoning about identity continuity (i.e., how people decide that a particular object is the same object over time) and its relation to previous research on how people value one-of-a-kind artifacts, such as artwork. We propose that judgments about the continuity of artworks are related to judgments about the continuity of individual persons because art objects are seen as physical extensions of their creators. We report a reanalysis of previous data and the results of two new empirical studies that test this hypothesis. The first study demonstrates that the mere categorization of an object as “art” versus “a tool” changes people’s intuitions about the persistence of those objects over time. In a second study, we examine some conditions that may lead artworks to be thought of as different from other artifacts. These observations inform both current understanding of what makes some objects one-of-a-kind as well as broader questions regarding how people intuitively think about the persistence of human agents.

Keywords: Identity; Persistence; Continuity; Agents; Artwork; Concepts; Lay theories

1. Introduction The literature on concepts has typically focused on general concepts—concepts like, or PAINTING. However, our concepts of individuals, such as my brother RobPERSON, CAT, ert, my cat Jack, or Van Gogh’s Starry Night, play a key role in how we interpret the world around us. Individuals are often important to us and our concepts about them inform our beliefs about their uniqueness, our attachments to them, and in certain cases, our assessments of their value. One central question concerns how people determine the Correspondence should be sent to George E. Newman, School of Management, Yale University, 165 Whitney Ave., New Haven, CT, 06520. E-mail: george.newman@yale.edu 2 G. E. Newman, D. M. Bartels, R. K. Smith / Topics in Cognitive Science (2014) continuity of individual objects over time (Rips, Blok, & Newman, 2006)—that is, how people decide that a particular object at t0 is the same individual at t1.

The majority of the research on this question has examined how people track the persistence of humans. For example,how people decide whether Jim is still Jim across time or various transformations. Both the philosophical literature (e.g., Locke, 1710/1975; Part, 1984; Wiggins, 1980; Williams, 1970; see Nichols & Bruno, 2010 for further discussion) and several empirical studies (Blok, Newman, Behr, & Rips, 2001; Blok, Newman, & Rips, 2005; Nichols & Bruno, 2010; suggest that people’s beliefs about the continuity of persons tend to be dualistic. That is, people believe that preserving an individual’s mental states (their thoughts, memories, and personality traits) is necessary for identity continuity. However, people also seem to place considerable importance on the continuity of the person’s physical stuff. For example, contrary to the science fiction example of a Star Trek Transporter, people do not often judge a molecule-for-molecule copy of person to be the same individual (e.g., Blok et al., 2001). Moreover, continuity judgments about persons seem to be somewhat unique in this respect. For example, people are more likely to say that a molecule-for-molecule copy of a hammer is the same individual hammer (provided that the original is destroyed when it is duplicated).

In this paper, we extend research on continuity judgments for persons to examine a second domain in which people seem to place considerable importance on the continuity of the same physical stuff—namely, one-of-a-kind artifacts. For example, like persons (and unlike hammers) people do not tend to believe that an identical duplicate of a painting is the same painting, and they view duplicates as considerably less valuable than the original (Newman & Bloom, 2012). To explain this pattern, we draw on the notions of the “extended self” (Belk, 1988; James, 1890; Olson, 2011), which proposes that the selfconcept goes beyond a person’s physical body to include certain artifacts that are seen as extensions of the person. Therefore, we suggest that observers may place special emphasis on original artwork, because the original is thought to physically contain some part of the person who created it (which cannot be duplicated).

To explore this hypothesis, we first describe how intuitions about the continuity of persons differ from other types of concepts by reanalyzing data from an earlier paper (Blok et al., 2005). We then report the results from two new empirical studies. The first study examines how determining the continuity of artwork is different from determining the continuity of other types of artifacts, such as tools. In a second study, we explore some of the features that may lead continuity judgments about artwork to differ from judgments about other artifacts. Together, these results offer new insights into the nature of identity judgments for persons and how those beliefs may carry over to objects that are seen as extensions of those individuals.

1.1. Intuitive dualism and the continuity of persons

How do people decide that a particular individual person is the same person over time?

While there have been several theories proposed in metaphysics about what should constitute identity (in a normative sense), here our focus is descriptive—in other words, G. E. Newman, D. M. Bartels, R. K. Smith / Topics in Cognitive Science (2014) 3 what are the ways in which people tend to make judgments of persistence, and what are the underlying lay theories supporting those judgments?

To explore this question, Blok et al. (2005) asked participants to consider the following scenario:

Jim is an accountant living in Chicago. One day, he is severely injured in a tragic car accident. His only chance for survival is participation in an advanced medical experiment called a “Type 2 transplant” procedure. Jim agrees. It is the year 2020 and scientists are able to grow all parts of the human body, except for the brain. A stock of bodies is kept cryogenically frozen to be used as spare parts in the event of an emergency. In a “Type 2 transplant procedure,” a team of doctors removes Jim’s brain and carefully places it in a stock body. Jim’s original body is destroyed in the operation.

After the operation, all the right neural connections between the brain and the body have been made.

The doctors test all physiological responses and determine that the transplant recipient is alive and functioning. The doctors scan the brain of the transplant recipient and note that the memories in it are the same as those that were in the brain before the operation.

Participants were then asked to indicate (on a 0–9 scale) the extent to which they thought the transplant recipient was Jim. A second group of participants were presented with a nearly identical scenario. However, the last sentence was altered to say that when the doctors scanned the brain they discovered that it had no memories, and that “something must have happened during the transplant.” The results indicated that the participants viewed the persistence of Jim’s memories as necessary for identity continuity. When Jim’s memories remained intact, participants gave a mean agreement rating of 6.6 to the statement that the transplant recipient was “Jim,” but a rating of only 2.0 when Jim’s memories were not preserved.

However, in a different series of studies, Blok et al. (2001) varied not only the presence or absence of memories but also whether those mental states were housed in Jim’s brain versus a state-of-the-art computer. The results indicated an effect of memories (preserved vs. not), replicating the study mentioned above. In addition, Blok et al. (2001) observed a significant effect of whether those mental states were housed in Jim’s brain versus a computer. For example, in the case in which all of Jim’s memories were preserved, participants gave a mean agreement rating of 5.3 (on the 0–9 scale) to the statement that the recipient was “Jim” when it was Jim’s brain, but a rating of only 1.9 when Jim’s memories were contained on the computer. In other words, participants seemed to also view the continuity of Jim’s physical stuff (and in particular, his brain) as necessary for identity continuity. Moreover, when Blok et al. (2001) asked about Jim’s occupation following the transplant—that is, “still an accountant,”—participants thought that the recipient with a brain versus the computer brain were equally likely to be accountants (Ms = 4.2 vs. 5.8, respectively), indicating that participants did see the mental states 4 G. E. Newman, D. M. Bartels, R. K. Smith / Topics in Cognitive Science (2014) housed in the computer as having an important causal role, just not one that was itself sufficient for identity continuity.

In a related line of research, Nichols and Bruno (2010) presented participants with similar scenarios. They replicated the effect of memories/mental states on identity judgments.

However, (mirroring the results of the brain vs. computer) they also found that in a case in which the individual (Jerry) lost all of his thoughts, memories, and personality traits, the majority of participants (72%) still agreed that after the operation, “Jerry will feel the pain” (associated with a series of postoperation shots). Thus, the apparent dualism inherent in identity judgments about persons (and most surprisingly, the emphasis on continuity of the brain/physical stuff) is revealed not only in negative cases (it is no longer Jim), but in positive ones as well (Jim still feels pain).

This work suggests that as a general rule, people use the sameness of stuff (i.e., physical matter) to make judgments of identity continuity—a view which we refer to as intuitive materialism. In other words, all else being equal, people are materialists when reasoning about identity, but persons may be seen as a special case because they have mental states. If this view is correct, one would naturally expect then that for other types of objects, like hammers, which lack mental states, judgments of identity continuity should be entirely dependent on sameness of substance. Interestingly, however, this does not appear to be the case. In fact, people appear to be less committed to intuitive materialism for artifacts (and even animals and plants) than for persons.

This observation comes from a reanalysis of data reported in Blok et al. (2005), Study

2. In this study, participants read about one of two “sci-fi” devices: either a “transporter” that was described as transporting an object particle-by-particle to a new place and reassembling it, or a “copier” that made a new copy of the object (while the original object was destroyed by a “disrupter ray”). Participants were then told about a series of objects (accompanied by pictures) that were placed into one of the devices. The objects included a person (Jim), animals (a cat, a mouse, a robin, and a turtle), plants (an apple, a houseplant, a leaf, a pineapple, and a tree), and artifacts (a car, a chair, a comb, a cup, a fire hydrant, a fridge, a hammer, a house, a sewing machine, and a toaster). In each case, participants then saw a picture that was identical to the item that was initially placed inside the device and were asked to judge whether the object that came out of the device was the same individual as the one that went in (responses were made on a 1–9 scale).1 As seen in Fig. 1, when the same physical stuff was preserved (transporter condition), participants were likely to say that all of the objects were continuers of the original object. However, when the object was composed of different physical stuff (copier condition), participants reported that the animals, plants, and artifacts were all continuers of the original object, while the person was not. These results indicate that, curiously, individuals tend to have a more materialist notion of identity when reasoning about the continuity of persons than the continuity of other types of objects.

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