New research led by popular neuroscientist David Eagleman demonstrates that our brain reacts to corporate behavior as though individual people were taking action. The finding may help explain why rights previously reserved for individuals — such as the freedom to worship and the right to free speech — were recently extended to corporations by the Supreme Court.

In an experiment, 40 people viewed short videos that each presented a pro-social, anti-social, or neutral action committed either by a person or a corporation. Scientists meanwhile observed how the brains of the participants behaved.

Learn more about Big Think expert David Eagleman's research here.

Past studies showed that a certain area of the brain's medial prefrontal cortex, which helps regulate emotion, deactivates when we consider inanimate objects or when individuals are presented in a dehumanized context. Researchers expected the same would be true when people considered the actions of corporations, but they found otherwise.

Participants expressed feeling more negative emotions like anger and disgust when viewing anti-social corporate action compared to anti-social people. When people acted selflessly, however, they received more praise than corporations that behaved benevolently.

Business consultant and founder of Monitor Talent Christopher Meyer explains how corporations need to cope with being held to higher standards rather than ignore their social obligation:

"I think companies are confused by being asked to take responsibility for every social issue that there is, not just the health of their own workers, but you know, what does Apple have to do with breast cancer, for example?  It’s not clear that there’s a close enough relationship there to make it worthwhile, and yet every company is under pressure to respond to the social ills in the world."


Other studies have shown that we do indeed judge corporate behavior more harshly than that of humans. When a corporation engages in socially neutral actions, we experience negative emotions, while granting leniency to individuals who do the same. We also take destructive corporate behavior as a strong indicator of future behavior, while once again giving individuals more understanding and forgiveness.

Following from this research, we seem to have a deeply held belief that corporate behavior should contribute to the overall well-being of society, i.e., that organizations composed of people should in turn benefit the society that provided them with human and capital resources.

Read more at the British Psychological Society.

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