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Joint attention: twelve myths

posted on 2023-06-07, 17:49 authored by David LeavensDavid Leavens
Humans have extraordinary capacities for manipulating the perceptual and conceptual foci of their social partners. Symbol-users extraordinaire, by virtue of shared symbolic codes, people moot, share, and collaboratively explore the entities of the universe, both physical and abstract, transcending the present moment and the present place. Humans sharing a common language can create joint universes of ratified histories, cosmologies (shared perspectives on humanity's place in the universe), and imaginary futures. As far as we know, this kind of communicative engagement is unique to our species. The learning of these symbolic codes begins in infancy, continues over the entirety of childhood, and extends over a lifetime. But at about the same age at which humans begin to speak, they also acquire practical, non-linguistic skills for coordinating their attention to ever more distant entities, in the here and now. These non-verbal skills take months to develop in our species; in western populations, children typically begin to follow pointing and to attract and re-direct the attention of their social partners to increasingly distant entities between 9 and 18 months of age. Many empirical studies support the contention that joint attention facilitates language acquisition in our species (e.g., Akhtar & Tomasello, 2000; Butterworth, 2003; Baldwin & Moses, 1996; Tomasello & Farrar, 1986). In recent decades, numerous researchers have posited that humans therefore have a species-unique adaptation for joint attention. The hypothesis of a human cognitive specialization for sharing attention is extremely popular in contemporary psychology, philosophy, and cognitive sciences. Numerous claims have been made in support of this view: (1) it has been alleged that after a year of age, human children point to change the contents of the minds of their social partners (Baron-Cohen, 1999), (2) human children allegedly point "altruistically" to inform others of the locations of objects (Liszkowski, Carpenter, Striano, & Tomasello, 2006), (3) human children allegedly point with a manifest acknowledgement of the mutuality of joint attention (Petitto, 1988), (4) pointing with the index finger has been alleged to be a universal human gesture (Butterworth, 2003; Povinelli & Davis, 1994; Povinelli, Bering, and Giambrone, 2003). Arguments for the human uniqueness of joint attention have looked to the behavior of our nearest living relatives, the great apes, and it has been variously claimed that (5) apes do not point, (6) apes do not point with their index fingers, (7) apes do not point with each other, (8) apes do not point to share attention, (9) apes do not point "altruistically" to inform others, (10) apes do not understand the communicative intentions of others, (11) apes do not acknowledge the mutuality of joint attention, and (12) apes do not point in their natural habitats. I will refute each of these 12 claims, which suffer from either conceptual naivete (Part 1) or from neglect of the totality of the empirical record (Part 2). First, I will demonstrate that claims for uniquely human socio-cognitive skills supporting joint attention suffer from experimenter bias in favor of humans. Secondly, I will review the empirical record, which unambiguously demonstrates that every component of joint attention that has been displayed by human infants has also been displayed by representatives of the great apes. Finally, I will suggest that joint attention is wholly explicable in apes and humans as a reflection of means-ends reasoning in all naturalistic and experimental contexts studied, to date.


Publication status

  • Published


MIT Press

Page range


Book title

Joint attention: New developments in Psychology, Philosophy of Mind, and Social Neuroscience

Place of publication

Cambridge, Mass.



Department affiliated with

  • Psychology Publications

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  • No

Peer reviewed?

  • Yes


Axel Seemann

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