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Joint attention

posted on 2023-06-09, 06:53 authored by David LeavensDavid Leavens, Hannah Clark
Joint attention is the state of shared attention by two or more parties to an entity or event. Bakeman and Adamson (1984) defined “coordinated joint engagement” as a state in which the “infant is actively involved with and coordinates his or her attention to both another person and the object that person is involved with” (p. 1281). Thus, the core developmental milestone is the ability to simultaneously engage with both social partners and objects or entities in the world—this coordination develops in Western populations in the latter half of the first year of life and continues into the second year; while often taken as representative of all humans, it remains an open question whether these developmental patterns are culture-specific or universal. There is considerable contemporary debate over the kinds of activities that should be subsumed under the rubric of “joint attention.” In developmental psychology, joint attention has been studied with respect to three classes of behaviour: initiating behavior regulation (IBR), initiating joint attention (IJA), responding to joint attention (RJA). Acts of IBR involve requests for object delivery—for example, pointing towards or reaching for an out-of-reach bottle, while alternating gaze between the 2 bottle and a caregiver. Babies display RJA when they are able to follow a social partner’s gaze or pointing gestures to particular locations. When babies point to entities for reasons other than to request that a social partner deliver the indicated object to them, then they are said to display IJA. A majority of contemporary researchers in developmental psychology include only RJA and IJA as examples of joint attention, arguing that these states of engagement differ from IBR in better predicting language development, in their apparent social orientation (often taken to contrast with the instrumental nature of IBR), and in their electrophysiological correlates (e.g., Vaughan Van Hecke, Mundy, Acra, Block, Delgado, Parlade et al., 2007). More inclusive definitions of joint attention include IBR as a facet of joint attention, based on the common behavioral constituents that characterize all three kinds of triadic engagement: an identifiable “topic” (the entity that forms the joint focus of attention), a directive gesture or cue (gaze or pointing), successive visual fixation of the entity and a social partner—these define a referential triangle, irrespective of whether the babies are apparently requesting an action on an entity or requesting an adult to share in emotional exchange about the entity (Bates, Camaioni, & Volterra, 1975). Even more inclusive definitions take IBR, IJA, and RJA as manifestations of joint attention and also such phenomena as social referencing, where babies use a parent’s emotional cues to regulate their own approach to novel objects, and imitation, which is predicated on mutually attentive social partners jointly engaged on an activity in a coordinated manner (Leavens & Racine, 2009). For many philosophers and developmental psychologists, joint attention implies the mutual awareness that two people are engaged in this state of shared attention; however, even proponents of this approach note that “knowing together” is difficult, if not impossible to objectively measure in any species, including humans (e.g., Carpenter & Call, 2013). Here, we will review the evidence for various aspects of joint attention in humans and animals, with special reference to our nearest living relatives, the great apes (Hominidae).


Publication status

  • Published

File Version

  • Accepted version


Springer natur



Book title

Encyclopedia of animal cognition and behavior

Place of publication

New York



Department affiliated with

  • Psychology Publications

Full text available

  • No

Peer reviewed?

  • Yes


Todd K Shackelford, Jennifer Vonk

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