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Why scientists are interested in shaking presents

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As you shake the present with your name on it, know that people watching can tell what you’re trying to find out: number of objects or the shape of what’s inside.

“There are few things more delightful than seeing a child’s eyes light up as they pick up a present and wonder what might be inside,” says author Chaz Firestone, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University who investigates how vision and thought interact.

“What our work shows is that your mind is able to track the information they are seeking. Just as they might be able to tell what’s inside the box by shaking it around, you can tell what they are trying to figure out when they shake it.”

In a series of experiments, the researchers asked hundreds of people to watch others shake boxes. It took just seconds for most of them to know whether the box shaker was trying to learn either how many things were in the box or the shape of things in the box. Although the boxes weren’t presents, and the contents weren’t smartwatches, Legos, or Red Ryder BB guns, if they were, the results would have been the same, the researchers say.

“The way you would shake a present to find out if it’s one thing or many things, or if it’s a small thing versus a big thing, can be subtly different,” says lead author Sholei Croom, a Johns Hopkins graduate student. “But people are amazing at picking up on such subtleties.”

Recognizing another person’s actions is something we do every day, whether it’s guessing which way someone is headed or figuring out what object they’re reaching for. These are known as “pragmatic actions.” Numerous studies have shown people can quickly and accurately identify these actions just by watching them. The new work investigates a different kind of behavior: “epistemic actions,” which are performed when someone is trying to learn something.

For instance, someone might put their foot in a swimming pool because they’re going for a swim or they might put their foot in a pool to test the water. Though the actions are similar, there are differences and the Johns Hopkins team surmised observers would be able to detect another person’s “epistemic goals” just by watching them.

The deceptively simple work by perception researchers is the first to demonstrate that people can tell what others are trying to learn just by watching their actions. The work, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals a key, yet neglected, aspect of human cognition.

“When we present this work we always talk about Christmas presents,” Firestone says. “It’s the perfect real-life example of our experiment.”

In the future the team would like to pursue whether people can observe someone’s epistemic intent versus their pragmatic intent—what are they up to when they dip their foot in the pool. They’re also interested in when these observational skills emerge in human development and if it’s possible to build computational models to detail exactly how observed physical actions reveal epistemic intent.

Source: Johns Hopkins University