Seeing and understanding epistemic actions

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 120:e2303162120 (2023)
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Many actions have instrumental aims, in which we move our bodies to achieve a physical outcome in the environment. However, we also perform actions with epistemic aims, in which we move our bodies to acquire information and learn about the world. A large literature on action recognition investigates how observers represent and understand the former class of actions; but what about the latter class? Can one person tell, just by observing another person’s movements, what they are trying to learn? Here, 5 experiments explore epistemic action understanding. We filmed volunteers playing a ‘physics game’ consisting of two rounds: Players shook an opaque box and attempted to determine (i) the number of objects hidden inside, or (ii) the shape of the objects inside. Then, independent subjects watched these videos and were asked to determine which videos came from which round: Who was shaking for number and who was shaking for shape? Across several variations, observers successfully determined what an actor was trying to learn, based only on their actions (i.e., how they shook the box)—even when the box’s contents were identical across rounds. These results demonstrate that humans can infer epistemic intent from physical behaviors, adding a new dimension to research on action understanding.



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Chaz Firestone
Johns Hopkins University

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