Gesture Production and Theory of Mind: Effective Disambiguation in Communication through Gesture

AbstractPeople design their speech acts with their listeners in mind, accounting for their knowledge and other mental states. Is this ability specific to linguistic communication, or domain general? We examine gestural communication, asking whether adults modify their gestures to meet their partner’s needs. In a two-item reference game, adults produced gestures (but not speech or pointing) to indicate to a partner which of the two objects was the target referent. Item pairs differed in one of three features (size, shape, pattern). We found that adults were significantly more likely to gesture a feature when it was relevant to distinguishing the two possible referents, versus when it was not. Thus, adults designed their gestures for their partners’ needs, suggesting that theory of mind plays a similar role across non-linguistic gesture and speech. These data lay a foundation for future developmental work on children’s use of theory of mind in gestural communication.

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