Actions may be used to directly act on the world around us, or as a means of communication. Effective communication requires the addressee to recognize the act as being communicative. Humans are sensitive to ostensive communicative cues, such as direct eye gaze (Csibra & Gergely, 2009). However, there may be additional cues present in the action or gesture itself. Here we investigate features that characterize the initiation of a communicative interaction in both production and comprehension.
We asked 40 participants to perform 31 pairs of object-directed actions and representational gestures in more- or less- communicative contexts. Data were collected using motion capture technology for kinematics and video recording for eye-gaze. With these data, we focused on two issues. First, if and how actions and gestures are systematically modulated when performed in a communicative context. Second, if observers exploit such kinematic information to classify an act as communicative.
Our study showed that during production the communicative context modulates space–time dimensions of kinematics and elicits an increase in addressee-directed eye-gaze. Naïve participants detected communicative intent in actions and gestures preferentially using eye-gaze information, only utilizing kinematic information when eye-gaze was unavailable.
Our study highlights the general communicative modulation of action and gesture kinematics during production but also shows that addressees only exploit this modulation to recognize communicative intention in the absence of eye-gaze. We discuss these findings in terms of distinctive but potentially overlapping functions of addressee directed eye-gaze and kinematic modulations within the wider context of human communication and learning.