Group agency and the degree to which people are willing to ascribe psychological states to corporations

A recent episode of the NPR show ‘This American
Life’ takes up the question of group agency and, in particular, the degree to which people are willing to ascribe psychological states to corporations.

Oddly enough, the presenters end up getting into an argument about precisely the issue that Adam Arico addressed in his very nice experimental

The episode begins with a conversation between Ira Glass and his

IRA’S DAD: There is this entity called Exxon Corporation
and you read newspaper stories about ‘Exxon says…’ or ‘Exxon was furious.’ 
IRA GLASS: You’ve never read a sentence that said ‘Exxon was furious…’
IRA’S DAD: Well, ‘Exxon was upset.’
IRA GLASS: Alright, I’m going to Google it right now….
IRA’S DAD: I bet you’re wrong.

Ira Glass then looks the phrase up on Google and reports, ‘Funny
story here: He’s right; I’m wrong.Just as his dad predicted, there were tons of entries in Google with that basic form.

Before admitting that his dad was right, Ira should have taken a look at Adam Arico’s paper. It turns out that people are willing to ascribe emotions to individual human beings using simple unadorned sentences (e.g., ‘George was feeling upset’), but that they are not willing to use such sentences for corporations (e.g., ‘Exxon was feeling upset’). There is, however, a specific reason why the Google search makes it look otherwise. The thing is that people are willing to use such sentences when further material is added in. For example, they are willing to say, ‘Exxon was feeling upset about the failure of its  marketing strategy.’

I actually find myself a little bit baffled as to why this effect arises. One possible explanation, I suppose, would be that when we say that someone is ‘feeling upset about…,’ we aren’t actually trying to say that they have a phenomenal state of feeling something, just that they have an intentional state directed toward a particular object. Or do any of you have an
alternative explanation?


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