Grounding principles for inferring agency: Two cultural perspectives

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

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


The present research investigates cultural variation in grounding principles for inferring agency in order to address an important theoretical debate: does cultural diversity in agency concepts reflect an animistic overextension of (universal) folkpsychology, as many have argued, or an alternative theory of folkcommunication based on relational principles? In two experiments, mind perception measures were adapted to assess beliefs concerning the agency of non-animal kinds (plants, abiotic kinds, complex artifacts) among Indigenous Ngöbe adults in Panama and US college students. Agency attributions varied systematically, with Ngöbe ascribing greater agency to non-animal natural kinds and US college participants ascribing greater agency to complex artifacts. Analysis of explanations revealed divergent interpretations of agency as a prototypically human capacity requiring consciousness (US), versus a relational capacity expressed in directed interactions (Ngöbe). Converging measures further illuminated the inferential principles underlying these agency attributions. (1) An experimental relational framing of agency probes facilitated Ngöbe but not US agency attributions. (2) Further analysis showed that three key dimensions of agency attribution (experience, cognition, animacy) are organized differently across cultures. (3) A Bayesian approach to cultural consensus modeling confirmed the presence of two distinct consensus models rather than variations on a single (universal) model. Together, these results indicate that conceptual frameworks for agency differ across US college and Ngöbe communities. We conclude that Ngöbe concepts of agency derive from a distinct theory of folkcommunication based on an ecocentric prototype rather than overextensions of an anthropocentric folkpsychology. These observations suggest that folkpsychology and mind perception represent culture specific frameworks for agency, with significant implications for domain-specificity theory and our understanding of cognitive diversity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)50-78
Number of pages29
JournalCognitive Psychology
StatePublished - Jun 1 2017


  • Agency
  • Animism
  • Culture
  • Domain specificity
  • Folkpsychology
  • Mind perception

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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