What do you intend?

Actions such as peeling a banana can be done for an immediate goal, having peeled banana, or for a more social goal, such as demonstrating how to peel a banana. Similarly, hand gestures such as pantomimes can help us to rehearse a newly learned action, or they can be used to teach someone else without using physical objects. Ultimately, the movements are the same regardless of our intention, but do our intentions influence the way that we move?

Hand movements in communicative settings

James Trujillo, together with Asli Ozyurek, Irina Simaonva, and Harold Bekkering investigated how more- and less-communicative settings influence the way that we move when producing actions and gestures, and whether naive observers can ‘read’ a person’s intentions from their movements. To investigate this, James asked participants to perform a series of actions and gestures while their movements were tracked using the Microsoft Kinect. Half of the participants believed they were being observed, via a camera, by another experimenter who was ‘learning the setup’. The other half of the participants also believed they were being observed via a camera, but by another participant who was ‘learning from them’. Later, a selection of these videos was shown to a new set of participants to determine whether they could tell the difference between the two groups.

The experiment showed that both actions and gestures made in the more-communicative setting, where they believed a fellow participant was learning from them, were larger and more punctual in their movements. In other words, they used large, fast movements with more pauses between segments of the movement. This was interpreted as making the structure of the action or gesture clear to an observer through large, distinct movements. When we asked a new set of participants to classify the videos as more- or less-communicative, they tended to base their judgments more on whether or not the person in the video made eye-contact with the camera, rather than movements. However, when they could not see the person’s eyes, they reliably judged larger movements as being communcatively intended.


This means that the setting you are in, and whether or not you are intending to communicative, influences the way that we move. Furthermore, this information can then be used by an observer to effectively read what your intention may be.

The research was published Open Access in Cognition (2018).

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