Conceptualizing agency: Folkpsychological and folkcommunicative perspectives on plants

bethany l. ojalehto*, Douglas L. Medin, Salino G. García

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


The present research addresses cultural variation in concepts of agency. Across two experiments, we investigate how Indigenous Ngöbe of Panama and US college students interpret and make inferences about nonhuman agency, focusing on plants as a critical test case. In Experiment 1, participants predicted goal-directed actions for plants and other nonhuman kinds and judged their capacities for intentional agency. Goal-directed action is pervasive among living kinds and as such we expected cultural agreement on these predictions. However, we expected that interpretation of the capacities involved would differ based on cultural folktheories. As expected, Ngöbe and US participants both inferred that plants would engage in goal-directed action but Ngöbe were more likely to attribute intentional agency capacities to plants. Experiment 2 extends these findings by investigating action predictions and capacity attributions linked to complex forms of plant social agency recently discovered in botanical sciences (communication, kin altruism). We hypothesized that the Ngöbe view of plants as active agents would productively guide inferences for plant social interaction. Indeed, Ngöbe were more likely than US participants to infer that plants can engage in social behaviors and they also attributed more social agency capacities to plants. We consolidate these findings by using bottom-up consensus modeling to show that these cultural differences reflect two distinct conceptual models of agency rather than variations on a single (universal) model. We consider these findings in light of current theories of domain-specificity and animism, and offer an alternative account based on a folktheory of communication that infers agency on the basis of relational interactions rather than having a mind.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)103-123
Number of pages21
StatePublished - May 1 2017


  • Agency concepts
  • Culture
  • Folkcommunication
  • Folkpsychology
  • Indigenous

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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