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Suspicious Minds: The Link Between Stress and Perceptions of Agency

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posted on 09.12.2021, 08:10 by Meier, Jeremy

How do we perceive other minds? Research shows that people intuitively think about other minds in terms of two dimensions: agency (the capacity to think and act) and experience (the capacity to sense and feel). Perceiving a mind in another entity can alter how people interact it because mind perception implies moral status. There is evidence that stress alters the treatment of others, including contributing to dehumanization (the failure to perceive a humanlike mind in another person), but the effect of stress on mind perception is unknown. Based on previous research about the effects of stress on psychological phenomena related to the dimensions of agency and experience, I hypothesized that stress increases perceptions of agency and reduces perceptions of experience. To test these hypotheses, I conducted four studies combining two different measures of mind perception and two different methodological approaches. The results were inconsistent from one study to the next, but a tentative pattern emerged when taking all studies together. Participants who reported high levels of pre-existing stress tended to perceive more agency across a range of different entities, while inducing stress in the laboratory caused participants to attribute agency more readily to inanimate human faces. These results were weak and inconsistent, but they suggest that stress might increase perceptions of agency. The results for experience were inconclusive. I discuss some possible implications of my findings for mind perception and morality.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Cognitive and Behavioural Neuroscience

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Science

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Psychology


Carmel, David; Grimshaw, Gina