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).
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