Just like the familiar concept that sentences have syntax, our actions have syntax, too; when we watch someone else do something, we assemble their actions to mean something, a new study has suggested.
"There are oceans and oceans of work on how we understand languages and how we interpret the things other people say," said Matthew Botvinick of Princeton University.
Botvinick and his colleagues focused on action sequences that followed two contrasting kinds of syntax-a linear syntax, in which action A (buying a ticket) leads to action B (giving the ticket to the attendant), which leads to outcome C (riding the carousel), and another syntax in which actions A and B both independently lead to outcome C.
They were testing whether the difference in structure affected the way that people read about the actions.
The experiments were based on studies suggesting that people read a sentence faster if it comes after a sentence with the same grammatical form. But in this case, the scientists varied relationships between actions rather than the order of parts of speech. In one experiment, volunteers read sentences that described three actions.
They took one of two forms: either one action leads to the next action, which leads to the outcome, such as "John purchased a carousel ticket, gave it to the attendant, and went for a ride," or sentences like "John sliced up some tomatoes, rinsed off some lettuce, and tossed together a salad"-in which both of the first two actions lead to the result, without the second depending on the first.
Indeed, people were able to read a sentence more quickly if it followed a set of actions arranged the same way than if it followed a sentence of the other type. This indicates that readers' minds had some kind of abstract representation of the ways goals and actions relate, said Botvinick.
"It's the underlying knowledge structure that kind of glues actions together. Otherwise, you could watch somebody do something and say it's just a random sequence of actions," he said.
The study was published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.