Corporations may not be people, but new cognitive science research suggests humans may think about both in a similar way.

The team of researchers from Yale, MIT, Harvard and UC Berkley looked to understand how individuals assign mental states to large organizations. The study used verbal tasks and functional brain scans to conclude that people often grant human traits to corporations and organizations. The similar activation patterns of brain regions associated with understanding human mental states while reading statements about individuals and groups suggested people perceive agency in organizations, said Josh Knobe, Yale professor of cognitive science and study co-author.

“The key question is how people think about these entities like corporations, teams, bands, churches and so forth,” Knobe said.

Knobe said the research was based in the question of how individuals talk and think about groups in everyday conversation. He added that humans often speak of large entities as if they were individual actors, and he and the research team were interested in the cognitive processes behind this behavior.

In the first experiment, researchers stood outside Yale dining halls and asked community members to consider a series of vignettes that dealt with a range of situations, some involving individual people and others involving larger groups, like corporations or organizations. The subjects tended to attribute human characteristics like desire, intention or ability to a group, even if the individual members of the group did not intend or desire the same things.

The second stage of the experiment, conducted at MIT, measured the brain activity of participants while they read statements about group agents and statements about individuals. The fMRI scans showed identical patterns of activation in the medial prefrontal cortex and the temporo-parietal junction during both activities, a network of regions associated with thinking about the minds of others, said UC Berkley study co-author Adrianna Jenkins.

Previously, most scientists thought that these brain regions were used for thinking about human beings. Now, Knobe said, it appears these brain regions are instead used for thinking about agents — entities seen as having beliefs and goals, such as the Catholic Church or Google.

Kurt Gray, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who was not involved in the research, said that the research builds on a larger body of research about how humans perceive corporations. Just as Knobe, Jenkins and other discovered, individuals see corporations as having agency, but Gray added that people also believe they lack a capacity to experience human emotion.

“When bad things happen to corporations, we don’t really feel that bad,” Gray said.

The finding has implications for understanding how individuals view group agents and corporations from a legal perspective, Jenkins said, referencing the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court case. Group agency also plays a role in matters of foreign policy, Knobe said, and the research suggests individuals may view the recent conflict with Russia in terms of the country’s motivations as opposed to those of President Vladimir Putin.

The study established similarities in how people view humans and larger entities, and Knobe said future research will attempt to discover differences in these views.

Gray said he too believes that further research in the field should investigate how people perceive different types of groups. He cited a recent study by Northwestern professor Tage Rai that suggests an organization believed to have human emotions but little agency, such as sports teams, generated a more sympathetic response than a company.

A recently published study found differences in brain activation patterns between those shown statements about individuals and those shown statements about collections of individuals, Jenkins said. This research did not compare individuals to group agents, but rather to collections of individuals, and therefore was not inconsistent with the findings in Knobe’s research, Jenkins said.

The study appeared in the journal PLOS on Aug. 20.