UBC Faculty Research and Publications

The Medusa effect reveals levels of mind perception in pictures Will, Paris; Merritt, Elle; Jenkins, Rob; Kingstone, Alan


Throughout our species history, humans have created pictures. The resulting picture record reveals an overwhelming preference for depicting things with minds. This preference suggests that pictures capture something of the mind that is significant to us, albeit at reduced potency. Here, we show that abstraction dims the perceived mind, even within the same picture. In a series of experiments, people were perceived as more real, and higher in both Agency (ability to do) and Experience (ability to feel), when they were presented as pictures than when they were presented as pictures of pictures. This pattern persisted across different tasks and even when comparators were matched for identity and image size. Viewers spontaneously discriminated between different levels of abstraction during eye tracking and were less willing to share money with a more abstracted person in a dictator game. Given that mind perception underpins moral judgement, our findings suggest that depicted persons will receive greater or lesser ethical consideration, depending on the level of abstraction.

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