- Understanding human action: integrating meanings, mechanisms, causes, and contexts
- Book title
- Case studies in interdisciplinary research
- Pages (from-to)
- Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage
- Document type
- Faculty of Science (FNWI)
- Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies (ISS)
Humans are capable of understanding an incredible variety of actions performed by other humans. Even though these range from primary biological actions like eating and fleeing, to acts in parliament or in poetry, humans generally can make sense of each other’s actions. Understanding other people’s action, called "action understanding," can transcend differences in race, gender, culture, age, and social and historical circumstances. Action understanding is the cognitive capability of making sense of another person’s action by integrating perceptual information about the behavior with knowledge about the immediate and socio-cultural contexts of the action and with one’s own experience.
Since it is necessary to integrate multiple sources of information, it is not surprising that failures to understand a person’s behavior are also common. Well known is the case of an autistic professor who compares herself to an "anthropologist from Mars." Incapable of spontaneously understanding why someone cries, she has learned rules that help her to infer that people who rub their eyes while tears are running down their cheeks are weeping and probably feel unhappy (Sacks, 1995). By contrast, normal individuals automatically allow stereotypes, prejudices, self-interests and the like to influence their understanding a person’s behavior (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999). More generally still, humans can easily misunderstand unfamiliar symbolic actions or rituals if they rely too much on their own socio-cultural expertise (Gadamer, 2004). Given the importance of action understanding in every domain of human life and society, and in light of the complexities that surround it, a comprehensive scientific understanding of this capacity is needed. Apart from satisfying intellectual curiosity, such insight would serve to improve our action understanding and mitigate several forms of misunderstanding. Indeed, in studying action understanding, "we as scientists are engaged in the very process that is central to our concerns" (Gergen & Semin, 1990, p. 1).
Scholars are increasingly dissatisfied with mono-disciplinary approaches to understanding human action. Such one-sidedness can rest upon various motives. For example, "hermeneutic interpretations" of action understanding tend to emphasize historical and cultural influences while overlooking that ultimately such influences depend upon individual cognitive processes.1 This has led to a critique of the assumption that humans are born as a "blank slate" and that culture is solely responsible for all cognitive contents. However, such critique easily slides into an overemphasis on the biology of human nature and a denial of socio-cultural influences on cognition (Pinker, 2003).
Fortunately, recent interdisciplinary endeavors have shown that an interdisciplinary approach is preferable when investigating complex functions like action understanding. Such research often involves developing a new "interdiscipline" such as cultural psychology (Bruner, 1990) or combining insights from the social sciences and psychology (Shore, 1996; Sperber, 1996). Evidence shows that throughout human evolution there have been mutual influences between biological and cognitive processes that shape human capacities and socio-cultural influences on those processes (Bogdan, 2003; Donald, 1991; Tomasello, 1999). In addition to these interdisciplinary investigations, computational sciences and artificial intelligence research are developing computer models of human understanding that allow new types of experiments and simulations (Churchland, 1995). Such insights underscore the necessity and fruitfulness of disciplinary boundary crossing and require that various disciplinary methods, concepts and theories be combined in innovative ways.
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