Movement as a message: inferring communicative intent from actions

AbstractHumans often communicate through seemingly arbitrary actions, like winks, waves, and nods. While these non-iconic gestures derive their meanings from cultural consensus, people, and especially children, must be able to identify these movements as gestures. Here we propose that people expect that communicative actions will be shaped to reveal that they have no external goal. In Experiment 1, we show that people judge inefficient actions as more likely to be communicative. In Experiment 2, we show that these judgments are truly driven by efficiency, rather than a movement’s visual complexity. Finally, in Experiment 3, we show that repetition – which unambiguously reveals that the goal of the action is the movement itself – has a strong influence on inferences about communicativeness, independent of the motion’s efficiency. Our findings show how expectations about non-iconic communicative actions can be folded into a general goal inference framework structured around an expectation for efficiency.

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