What’s in the box? Simple test reveals how intuitive people are in seconds

BALTIMORE — The latest big scientific breakthrough comes to you in its own mystery box! Scientists at Johns Hopkins had hundreds of people watch others shake boxes, and it only took seconds for the vast majority of participants to grasp why they were shaking. While these findings may sound odd at first, the study authors explain their work is the first ever to clearly demonstrate that people can tell what others are trying to learn simply by watching their actions.

The research team believes this study has revealed an integral yet constantly neglected aspect of human cognition. Moreover, they add the study holds implications for artificial intelligence.

“Just by looking at how someone’s body is moving, you can tell what they are trying to learn about their environment,” says author Chaz Firestone, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences who investigates how vision and thought interact, in a media release. “We do this all the time, but there has been very little research on it.”

Recognizing other peoples’ actions is something most people do on a daily basis; whether that means guessing which way someone is headed or figuring out what object they’re reaching for. These movements are classified as “pragmatic actions.” Numerous studies have already shown people can quickly and accurately identify pragmatic actions just by watching them. The latest from Johns Hopkins, on the other hand, investigated a different kind of behavior: “epistemic actions,” which are performed when someone is attempting to learn something.

For example, an individual might put their foot in a swimming pool because they’re going for a swim or to test the water. While the two actions are similar, there are differences, and the Johns Hopkins team hypothesized observers would be capable of detecting another person’s “epistemic goals” just by viewing them.

Happy dad opening a Christmas gift
Happy dad opening a Christmas gift

Across numerous experiments, researchers asked a total of 500 participants to watch two different videos displaying someone picking up a box full of objects and shaking it around. One video depicted someone shaking a box to figure out the number of objects inside it. The other showed someone shaking a box to figure out the shape of the objects inside. Incredibly, close to every single participant knew who was shaking for the number and who was shaking for shape.

“What is surprising to me is how intuitive this is,” adds lead author Sholei Croom, a Johns Hopkins graduate student. “People really can suss out what others are trying to figure out, which shows how we can make these judgments even though what we’re looking at is very noisy and changes from person to person.”

“When you think about all the mental calculations someone must make to understand what someone else is trying to learn, it’s a remarkably complicated process. But our findings show it’s something people do easily,” Prof. Firestone explains.

Researchers add these findings could one day help inform the development of AI systems intended to interact with humans. It would be helpful, for example, if a commercial robot assistant could look at a customer and guess what they’re looking for.

“It’s one thing to know where someone is headed or what product they are reaching for,” Prof. Firestone concludes. “But it’s another thing to infer whether someone is lost or what kind of information they are seeking.”

Moving forward, the research team would like to study whether people can observe someone’s epistemic intent versus their pragmatic intent, in other words, what are they up to when they dip their foot in the pool. They’re also interested in researching when these observational skills emerge in human development, as well as if it’s possible to build computational models detailing exactly how observed physical actions reveal epistemic intent.

The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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About the Author

John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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