The perceived intentionality of groups

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Heider and Simmel [Heider, F., Simmel, M., 1944, An experimental study of apparent behavior, American Journal of Psychology 57, 243-259] found that people spontaneously describe depictions of simple moving objects in terms of purposeful and intentional action, not all intentional beings are objects, however, and people often attribute purposeful activity to non-object individuals such as countries, basketball teams, and families. This raises the question of whether the same effect found by Heider and Simmel would hold for non-object individuals such as groups. We replicate and extend the original study, using both objects and groups as stimuli, and introducing two control conditions with groups that are not engaged in structured movement. We found that under the condition that best promoted the attribution of intentionality, moving groups are viewed as purposeful and goal-directed entities to the same extent that moving objects are. These results suggest that the psychological distinction between the notion of 'intentional entity' and the notion of 'object' can be found even in the perception of moving geometrical figures.

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Bloom, P., & Veres, C. (1999). The perceived intentionality of groups. Cognition, 71(1), B1.

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