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How to point and to interpret pointing gestures? Instructions can reduce pointer–observer misunderstandings


In everyday communication, people often point. However, a pointing act is often misinterpreted as indicating a different spatial referent position than intended by the pointer. It has been suggested that this happens because pointers put the tip of the index finger close to the line joining the eye to the referent. However, the person interpreting the pointing act extrapolates the vector defined by the arm and index finger. As this line crosses the eye-referent line, it suggests a different referent position than the one that was meant. In this paper, we test this hypothesis by manipulating the geometry underlying the production and interpretation of pointing gestures. In Experiment 1, we compared naïve pointer-observed dyads with dyads in which the discrepancy between the vectors defining the production and interpretation of pointing acts has been reduced. As predicted, this reduced pointer–observer misunderstandings compared to the naïve control group. In Experiment 2, we tested whether pointers elevate their arms steeper than necessary to orient it toward the referent, because they visually steer their index finger tips onto the referents in their visual field. Misunderstandings between pointers and observers were smaller when pointers pointed without visual feedback. In sum, the results support the hypothesis that misunderstandings between (naïve) pointers and observers result from different spatial rules describing the production and interpretation of pointing gestures. Furthermore, we suggest that instructions that reduce the discrepancy between these spatial rules can improve communicating with pointing gestures.

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  1. 1.

    We report Greenhouse Geisser corrected p values but uncorrected dfs throughout the article.

  2. 2.

    One observer of a naive dyad and one observer of a head-on-shoulder dyad claimed to base referent estimates on the eye-finger line. The respective naïve dyad performed actually worse than the average naïve dyads. The errors of the respective head-on-shoulder dyad were about half the size of the errors of the remaining head-on-shoulder dyads.


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We thank Georg Schüssler for technical support, Hanna Mathew and Felicitas Muth for assistance with the data collection.

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Correspondence to Oliver Herbort.

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Herbort, O., Kunde, W. How to point and to interpret pointing gestures? Instructions can reduce pointer–observer misunderstandings. Psychological Research 82, 395–406 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-016-0824-8

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