Hillary Harner presented our latest work on teleological generics at SPP. The abstract of her work is available here:
People can describe generalizations about the functions of objects by producing teleological generic language, i.e. those statements that express generalities about the purposes of objects. People accept teleological generics such as eyes are for seeing and cars are for driving. However, no studies have examined whether generalizations about volitional agents are acceptable. It may be counterintuitive to consider autonomous individuals as having any kind of function or purpose: what’s the purpose of a giraffe, or a whale, or an Etruscan? No matter how you complete the teleological generic, Etruscans are for _____, the sentence seems unacceptable, since Etruscans had autonomy and volition over their own actions. But perhaps people consider certain volitional agents as having some kind of associated function. The teleological generic, horses are for riding may strike some people as acceptable, because people may associate the kind horses with its unique utility as a beast of burden.
We ran a study designed to evaluate whether people accept agent-based teleological generics. Participants read statements of the format Xs are for Y, e.g., horses are for riding. Half of the statements concerned on activities that humans have no direct benefit from: the animal naturally performs the activity on its own and the activity is not a byproduct of domestication, e.g. “bees are for buzzing.” The other half concerned animals and associated activities that humans benefit from, either because of domestication or because of some way humans have drawn direct impact from the animals’ behavior, e.g. “bees are for making honey.” 50 participants received 24 generic statements in total, and they rated each one as true or false. The experiment tested the hypothesis that participants should accept teleological generics more often when they concerned activities from which humans draw a direct benefit. The results confirmed the hypothesis: people rated teleological generics true more often for statements concerning beneficial activities than for “control” items that concerned frequent activities that do not benefit humans (83% vs. 41%, Wilcoxon test, z = 5.54, p < .001, Cliff’s δ = .77).