Are Corporations People?
ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Svitlana Hrabovsky Tanya Silverman

By Svitlana Hrabovsky and Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy of David Shankbone.

The concepts of “corporate personhood” and the rights of corporations have become contentious topics in contemporary politics and protests.

In the 2010 Supreme Court Case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Justices ruled that corporations are not forbidden from using treasury funds for independent expenditures and elections communications. An arguably personal right was extended to corporations in the 5-4 decision.

The majority in Citizens United argued that “barring independent political spending amounts to squelching free speech protected by the First Amendment,” which “protects not just a person’s right to speak, but the act of speech itself, regardless of the speaker. Therefore the First Amendment protects the speech of corporations and unions, whether we consider them people or not.”

Justice Scalia wrote that the majority considers allowing this version of “political speech” to be pivotal to the First Amendment’s force.

Although the phrase “corporate personhood” is never actually written in the text of Citizens United–and the concept’s overall significance in legal practice is disputed–its ideological value still prevails in the current climate of political discourse.

For instance, Move to Amend is a grassroots organization determined to reverse the ruling of Citizens United, arguing that money is not speech and that corporations should not be allowed the same Constitutional Rights that are allotted to a person.

Move to Amend’s homepage quotes former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens who stated in early 2010 that, “corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires,” and “their ‘personhood’ often serves as a useful legal fiction.”

But with politics, activists, and Justices aside, how do humans actually perceive corporations? Psychological scientists Mark Plitt, Ricky Savjani, and David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine investigated the significance of “corporate personhood” on a personal level.

The researchers set out to determine how ordinary, everyday humans subconsciously register corporations in their brains. Plitt and the team wanted to examine whether corporations and their actions were regarded more as inanimate objects or as social beings.

To frame the background of their research, the researchers noted in the study that as corporations form a distinct, collective entity, these companies become seemingly separate from the individuals that comprise them. The researchers also reference Citizens United and its connotations with free speech as a significant component of the “corporate personhood” discussion.

During the course of the scientific experiment, the researchers ran several cognitive tests through the use of magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on a group of 42 participants. The researchers displayed situations where corporations, humans, and inanimate objects were associated with positive, negative, and neutral vignettes.

Assessing the data, Plitt and his team were able to conclude that the social cognition areas of the brain which are responsible for judging people also became activated when the tested participants were asked to judge corporations. When judging inanimate objects, however, the measured activity within this area of the brain diminished, providing further evidence that participants judged corporations more like people.

The study also determined that people had an easier time in eliciting negative emotions towards corporations in anti-social scenarios. When the tested participants judged other humans, however, it was easier for them to experience more positive feelings towards their pro-social actions.

“Collectively, these findings indicate that our brains understand and analyze the actions of corporations and people very similarly, with a small emotional bias against corporations,” the researchers wrote.

Another recent study, conducted by researchers Tage S. Rai and Daniel Diermeier of the Kellogg School of Management and Northwestern University, helps to clarify the reasoning behind humans’ psychological judgment of corporations. Their research found that when individuals are thought to have more agency–such as the ability to make their own decisions–it may elicit more blame for their actions. However, on the flip side, when people are seen experiencing feelings such as pain or hunger, their human struggles may evoke more sympathetic responses.

The study, titled “Corporations are Cyborgs: Organizations elicit anger but not sympathy when they can think but cannot feel,” included four experiments and a pilot study. The researchers wrote in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes that they “demonstrated that companies are seen as being capable of ‘thinking’, but not ‘feeling’, and as a result, they elicit anger for their transgressions, but fail to elicit sympathy as victims.”

Perhaps Justice Stevens’ prior assessment that corporations do not have feelings or a conscience helps explain people’s reactions to them–that individuals can more easily judge corporations due to their inability to feel. However, according to Rai’s and Diermier’s conclusions, Stevens’ statement that corporations have “no thoughts” may contradict how other people perceive their capabilities.