What is it about?

Notions about the capacity of animals to experience human-like mental states follow a scala naturae in which animals considered more similar to humans are credited with a greater capacity to experience these. However, studies have also shown that people believe that animals are more able to experience emotions when compared to more intentional and reflective states of the mind. We contend that the first ones differ from the second in that they have more conspicuous behavioral expressions. Hence, emotions can be “seen”, whereas the ability to plan or deceive, will mostly be inferred by using the overall similarity of animals to humans or some other related indicator. In this study -carried out with an urban sample from Mexico City and a rural sample of Mayans from Yucatán- we aimed to identify why some animals are considered more human-like and why some mental states are attributed to them more than others.

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Why is it important?

Mind attribution plays a key role in the moral standing of both people and animals, and more generally, in the way humans relate and connect to the surrounding world. It has been found that the capacity to experience emotions places both people and animals as recipients of moral rights, whereas the capacity to engage in reflective thinking confers agents a higher moral responsibility toward others. Understanding how these perceptions or judgments arise might also help us to elucidate the origin and expression of moral perception and the motivation of this behavior.


I mostly enjoyed doing fieldwork and exploring how people with other culture and who live in such a different context as mine, understand the inner states of other animals. Although we used a Likert scale to assess mind attribution to animals, during the informal chats with participants I learnt that we rely on similar behavioral expressions of animals to infer their emotional states. This realization led us to explore the characteristics of these behaviors in a related paper. If people from different cultural origins and educational backgrounds depend on similar behaviors to attribute the same mental states to animals, it would point to the presence of an evolved prior or evolutionary schema, deeply ingrained in our brain to help us understand and predict others´ actions.

Esmeralda Gabriela Urquiza-Haas

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Human-Animal Similarity and the Imageability of Mental State Concepts for Mentalizing Animals, Journal of Cognition and Culture, July 2022, Brill, DOI: 10.1163/15685373-12340133.
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