On Purpose


The Cartesian assumptions of cognitive psychology give rise to an insoluable problem, the ‘problem of other minds’. It is presupposed that people do not provide evidence of their intentions in the observable environment, but we seem to understand their intentions nevertheless (the ‘unobservability principle’: Krueger, 2012). The ‘problem of other minds’ is thus a kind of ‘poverty of the stimulus’ argument, a standpoint based on false premises that leads psychology up a garden path. In Ivan Leudar and Alan Costall’s words: “What psychology needs is a good account of communication which is applicable to its own investigative practices—what it gets is one designed to resolve the spurious problem of other minds.” (Leudar and Costall, 2004, p. 615).

I have written about the many methodological and empirical failings of this position before, but only briefly touched on alternatives we can accept in its place. If we reject the idea that perception is indirect, what replaces it must be direct perception: but what does direct perception of intent entail?

Direct Perception

The direct perception account is disarmingly simple. It begins from the experience of intentionality, in which our knowledge of the purposes of others is hardly ever a matter of inference. We see pain, happiness, fear, and so on, so immediately it can seem strange that the counter-intuitive Theory of Mind approach has ever made any ground. In everyday conversations, we rarely require reference to mental states to discuss issues of intent (Coulter, 1989). Direct perception accounts do away with the unweildy cognitive instruments proposed by orthodox psychology as they are surplus to requirements, designed to solve a spurious problem created by false assumptions.

But what is it to see another’s purpose? If, as Goffman (1979) suggests, we make our intentions ‘monitorable’ by others, how do we do so? Such questions are avaliable not only to naturalistic studies of real interaction (e.g. Mandelbaum & Pomerantz, 2005), but also to experimental approaches which manipulate the underlying variables responsible for perceptions of intentionality and ‘animacy’.

Experiments in direct perception of intention

Heider and Simmel (1944) showed short animations involving basic geometric shapes. The video is embedded below: watch it and you may find yourself, as their participants eagerly did, ascribing specific intentions to the triangles and circles. The subjects of the experiment did the same, sometimes even giving the shapes characters, all due to (as Heider and Simmel suggest) the way in which the shapes move in relation to one another.

This paradigm was further developed by Dittrich and Lea (1994), which used letters as  stimuli, in a display with randomly-moving letters as distracters. The target letter was shown interacting with a random distrator letter, either ‘stalking’ them (wolf/sheep condition) or ‘following’ them (lamb/sheep condition). When the experimenters manipulated the trajectory, speed, or interaction of the target letter they found this affected observer’s ratings of animacy: faster and more directed behaviour towards an interacting target proved the surest predictors of ‘animacy’ ratings. (While the authors discussed the findings in terms such as ‘animacy’, it is key to note that many of the key predictors of animacy could be referred to as ‘intentionality’, suggesting our perception of livingness is intimately tied to, if not predicated upon, the perception of intention.)

Tremoulet and Feldman (2000) reduced the stimulus still further, to a single white dot or rectangle on a dark background, and participants were asked to rate how likely the stimulus was ‘alive’. The authors demonstrated that impressions of ‘animacy’ were governed by changes in direction, changes in alignment (for the rectangle), and changes in speed, i.e., any visible motion that does not conserve energy (suggesting independence from external sources of energy). This was especially true when these factors interacted, for example when the alignment of the rectangle matched its direction.

For their findings, the authors posited an unconscious, automatic inference of intentionality, suggesing that we have a default assumption of inanimacy to prevent false-positive. However, this only further disconfirms the idea that understanding intention requires additional cogitation to bring meaning to the meaningless. All papers, I would argue, demonstrate the ecological genesis of intent and meaning, data that brain-bound cognitive approches find hard to account for without entangling themselves in further contradictions.

Animation and abstraction

In these studies, animation was used to reveal how the experience of understanding the purpose of another agent can be manipulated by changing the relative dynamics of the agents themselves. However, these findings are little new to artists working professionally as animators. Gibson noted that many of his observations about the influences of the environment on our perception were already known to many workers, whose practical activity in their profession demonstrates these laws concretely:

“[E]cological mechanics… is rather different from celestial mechanics on the one hand, or particle mechanics on the other… Carpenters and builders are familiar with this branch of physics, although it is not taught in school.” (Gibson, 1979, p.88)

Just as ecological mechanics are second nature to an architect or builder, animators are keenly aware of the relationship between motion and meaning. It is only to a psychologist, whose theories are so intellectualised and alienated from common life, that these ideas are new or unproven.

In this video on animator Charles ‘Chuck’ Jones, the problem of understanding motivation and intention from cartoon drawings is swiftly explained. Chuck is not a psychologist, and his animations are not experiments. But they are clearly derived from careful observation of real world, commonplace behaviour. As the video’s narrator points out, it is the overall purpose of any particular character that proscribes how they should move in order to embody this motivation wordlessly: “If you can’t tell what’s happening by the way the character moves, you’re not animating.” Furthermore, Chuck focused his craft on conveying this meaning with the least possible action: a slight raise of an eyebrow, a quick glance, or even a complete freeze of expression. Jones understood in practise what is still rarely accepted in mainstream psychological theory: that personal intentions are not isolated in the mind, but are embodied, and emerge from basic relational actions.

However, there is a danger in this analysis that we lose sight of the actual experience we are attempting to investigate by reducing intentionality into mere movements. To clarify, the direct perception approach does not propose that when we see intent, we actually see these movements. This is as much an error of reductionism, of intellectualisation, as the one committed by cognitive psychology mentioned above.

From the ecological standpoint, the dynamics investigated by Heider, Simmel, and others are not primary experience, they are conceptual frameworks to help account for primary experience. When we see our friends pointing for the item they want, or a stranger holding a door open for us in a hallway, the movements that underlie these intentions are not part of our experience of intentionality (but see footnote 1). They are part of a theoretical effort to explain how direct perception is possible. In other words, we should take care not to over-think our everyday interactions, substituting our abstractions for reality itself.

The strength of ecological perspectives

Ecological psychology introduces meaning into psychology which was previously incapable of conceptualising it. Orthodox cognitive psychology begins from the world as concieved of by physicists: atomised and without inherent meaning. To end up at the world of experience, intent must be added by using cognitive mechanisms such as Theory of Mind. But there is no way to ‘add’ meaning into stimulus information by cognition (Leudar and Costall, 2004). Therefore, the basic unit of ecological psychology is relations, so relational qualities like meaning do not need to be constructed or imputed: they are incorporated from the beginning.

1) This is not to say that we cannot abstract from our experience, ‘zone out’, so to speak, and focus on specific actions. I find myself doing this when I re-watch favourite movies. See Froese and Leavens (2014) for more on this.

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