Putting it Together, Together

Cognitive Science 48 (2):e13405 (2024)
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Abstract

People are not as fast or as strong as many other creatures that evolved around us. What gives us an evolutionary advantage is working together to achieve common aims. Coordinating joint action begins at a tender age with such cooperative activities as alternating babbling and clapping games. Adult joint activities are far more complex and use multiple means of coordination. Joint action has attracted qualitative analyses by sociolinguists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers as well as empirical analyses and theories by cognitive scientists. Here, we analyze how joint action is spontaneously coordinated from start to finish in a novel complex real‐life joint activity, assembling a piece of furniture, a task that captures the essentials of joint action, collaborators, things in the world, and communicative devices. Pairs of strangers assembled a TV cart from a stack of parts and a photo of the completed cart. Coordination prior to each assembly action was coded as explicit, using speech or gesture, or implicit, actions that both advanced the task and communicated the next step. Initial planning relied on explicit communication about structure, but not action nor division of labor, which were improvised. That served to establish a joint representation of the goal that informed actions and monitored progress. As assembly progressed, coordination was increasingly implicit, through actions alone. Joint action is a dynamic interplay of explicit and implicit signaling with respect to things in the world to coordinate ongoing progress, guided by a shared representation of the goal.

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