Seeing the mind of robots: Harm augments mind perception but benevolent intentions reduce dehumanisation of artificial entities in visual vignettes

Dennis Küster, Aleksandra Swiderska
Published Online:
16 Sep 2020

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According to moral typecasting theory, good‐ and evil‐doers (agents) interact with the recipients of their actions (patients) in a moral dyad. When this dyad is completed, mind attribution towards intentionally harmed liminal minds is enhanced. However, from a dehumanisation view, malevolent actions may instead result in a denial of humanness. To contrast both accounts, a visual vignette experiment (N = 253) depicted either malevolent or benevolent intentions towards robotic or human avatars. Additionally, we examined the role of harm‐salience by showing patients as either harmed, or still unharmed. The results revealed significantly increased mind attribution towards visibly harmed patients, mediated by perceived pain and expressed empathy. Benevolent and malevolent intentions were evaluated respectively as morally right or wrong, but their impact on the patient was diminished for the robotic avatar. Contrary to dehumanisation predictions, our manipulation of intentions failed to affect mind perception. Nonetheless, benevolent intentions reduced dehumanisation of the patients. Moreover, when pain and empathy were statistically controlled, the effect of intentions on mind perception was mediated by dehumanisation. These findings suggest that perceived intentions might only be indirectly tied to mind perception, and that their role may be better understood when additionally accounting for empathy and dehumanisation.

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