What is a Person? Evidence on Mind Perceptions from Natural Language
41 Pages Posted: 10 Nov 2021 Last revised: 22 Aug 2022
Date Written: November 19, 2021
Recent psychology research has established that people do not employ a simple unidimensional scale for attributions of personhood, increasing from non-sentient rocks to mentally complex humans. Rather, there are two personhood dimensions: agency (e.g. planning, deciding, acting) and patiency (e.g. feeling, desiring, experiencing). Here we show that this subtle distinction also occurs in the semantic space of natural language. We develop computational-linguistics tools for measuring variation in agency and patiency in language and validate the measures against human judgments. To demonstrate the usefulness of the method, we map both dimensions of personhood in historical English-language corpora over the last 200 years. First, we show that while women are now perceived as having similar levels of agency as men, they are still perceived as more patient-like. Second, we show that domesticated animals have gradually gained higher attributions of patiency, but not agency, over time.
Keywords: dimensions of mind, personhood, person, mind, NLP, agency, patiency, gender
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