from Emma Young
Much has been written about the downsides of working from home. In particular, “zoom fatigue” has become a term and an experience that many of us are familiar with. But the tedious effects of video chat could be, according to a new work in. represent only one of its dangers PNAS. It turns out that we ascribe less “spirit” to people whom we see in picture form than in the flesh and even fewer pictures of human images. This could have serious consequences, write Paris Will of the University of British Columbia and colleagues: “Given that the perception of the mind underpins moral judgment, our results suggest that people depicted are more or less ethical, depending on the degree of abstraction . “
When we judge the extent to which a creature or thing has a mind, we judge it by two factors: “experience” and “handling”. Mental experience relates to conscious feelings – for example to feel pain or happiness; an animal that ranks higher based on experience is generally also judged to have a higher intrinsic moral value. Agency, on the other hand, refers to the ability to actively do something – to act, to influence the course of events.
In a series of online and laboratory experiments, Will and colleagues investigated how looking at a person in person compared to a photo or a picture of a photo could influence participants’ judgments about that person’s ability to experience and act as “real” they appeared. For example, in one experiment, a group of participants compared a living face of one volunteer student to a life-size photo of the face of another volunteer; a second group of participants looked at a photo showing the face of one volunteer who was also holding up a photo of the other volunteer’s face (both faces in this picture were the same size). The team found time and again that a greater abstraction was associated with a lower assessment of experience, ability to act and authenticity. In an experiment they also found effects on behavior: Participants in a variant of the classic “dictator game” allotted significantly more money to recipients whose faces they saw in a picture than in a picture of a picture.
“It may come as no surprise that the mind’s perception of images differs from reality,” the researchers write. “What is more surprising is that the perception of the mind differs between images and images of images.” They call this the “Medusa effect,” after the mythical ancient Greek gorgon that would only turn a person to stone if he looked directly at them but not on her reflection.
As the team notes, there has been a huge shift from face-to-face to online interaction over the past decade (and particularly in the last two pandemic years). This significantly shifts the level of abstraction. All of the faces in their study were static, so it is difficult to say how the movement of a face image – like in a video chat – might affect the perception of the mind. But there are other contexts in which these specific results are directly applicable: the researchers point out photographic evidence in a virtual experiment; visual materials presented by teachers in online classes; and photos of victims shared by cyber bullies. “In all of these situations, the results depend on sensitivity to the thoughts of others – exactly what is lost with an additional layer of abstraction.”
Future work could also investigate individual differences in susceptibility to the Medusa effect. But for now, the work clearly suggests a new reason to be careful about online interactions compared to the real world.
– The Medusa effect shows levels of mental perception in images
Emma Young (@EmmaELJunge) works at BPS Biomedarticles