Study reveals how little people know about each other's intentions

January 18, 2017 by Mike Addelman, University of Manchester
Credit: Paul Brennan/public domain

Psychologists from The University of Manchester have shown how difficult it is for us to guess the true intention of each other's behaviour.

The study, published today in Attention, Perception, and Psychophysics, has important implications on public policies designed to impact on areas such as smoking, obesity, eating disorders, self-harm, alcohol use and gambling.

Clinical psychologist Dr Warren Mansell, who led the study, says policy makers need to accurately understand what a person is trying to control using their , rather than trying to change the behaviour itself.

He said: "We think we know what someone is doing just by observing them. For example if we see someone move a steering wheel of their car, we assume they are aiming to keep their car in the centre of the lane.

"But our study shows that it is incredibly easy to be mistaken – and that has important implications on anyone whose task is to change .

"In psychological research, for example, this study suggests that some behaviour studied may be no more than a side effect of participants'true intentions.

"We should therefore avoid focusing on 's behaviour itself . That would lead to multiple and inevitably futile interventions for each and every problem."

He added: "In terms of public policy, we frequently we see money spent on another new initiative for 'behaviour change'.

"Yet if these behaviours are just side effects of people trying to exert control, then this multi-pronged approach to health is highly inefficient and fails to address the common root cause of people's difficulties.

"You need to ask people what they want in their life and how they solve their problems. Smoking, for example, is just one of many different ways in which a person might try to control something important to them – such as their social confidence, or emotional state."

Dr Mansell's team were able to fool over 350 people into thinking that a person they saw in a video controlling the location of a knot in a rubber band was doing something completely different.

The study participants wrongly thought it showed someone drawing a picture, exposing the phenomenon of 'control blindness'.

Most participants failed to correctly infer the person's intention, instead inferring complex but non-existent goals, such as 'tracing out two kangaroos boxing', based on the actions taken to keep the knot under control.

The effect persisted with many participants even when their awareness was successfully directed at the knot whose position was under control.

Much of the work was carried out by Andrew Willett, an honorary research assistant who spent three months at Manchester on secondment from Vassar College, Poughkeepsie.

The results were modelled on a computer by Dr Rick Marken, based at Antioch University.

Dr Mansell said: "It might surprise some, but this study backs up what we have found in studies of people's health and well-being. What's more, if control blindness is apparent with the simple behaviour in our study, then it is even more likely in everyday life where people's actions can be sophisticated or subtle.

"Observers with control blindness appear to be unable to guess what the true intention of someone's behaviour is, even if their attention is drawn towards it.

"Seeing the unintentionally produced pattern of pen movement as intentional is an example of what has been called'the illusion of control'

"Our study shows that the side effects of intentional behaviour that create the illusion of control can be so compelling that they blind people to the true intention, leading to control blindness."

Explore further: Dopaminergic drugs cause changes in deep brain areas of Parkinson's patient

Related Stories

Dopaminergic drugs cause changes in deep brain areas of Parkinson's patient

November 30, 2016
A drug like levodopa, which is used by patients with Parkinson's disease, causes changes in the communication between deep brain areas that are important for learning and behaviour. As a result of this, impulse control disorders ...

Carrots and sticks fail to change behaviour in cocaine addiction

June 16, 2016
People who are addicted to cocaine are particularly prone to developing habits that render their behaviour resistant to change, regardless of the potentially devastating consequences, suggests new research from the University ...

How did ignoring people for our smartphones become the norm?

June 7, 2016
It's common now to see people snubbing social companions to concentrate on their smartphone. But what causes this behaviour - known as 'phubbing' - and how did it come to be regarded as normal?

Research proves it—the smell of alcohol makes it hard to resist

March 17, 2016
The smell of alcohol may make it harder for people to control their behaviour according to a team of Edge Hill University researchers whose findings were published today in the Psychopharmacology journal.

Mood swings of bipolar patients can be predicted, study shows

April 19, 2011
The future mood swings of people with bipolar disorder can be predicted by their current thoughts and behaviour, a study published today (Tuesday) has found.

Recommended for you

Study of learning and memory problems in OCD helps young people unlock potential at school

January 22, 2018
Adolescents with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have widespread learning and memory problems, according to research published today. The findings have already been used to assist adolescents with OCD obtain the help ...

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

College branding makes beer more salient to underage students

January 18, 2018
In recent years, major beer companies have tried to capitalize on the salience of students' university affiliations, unveiling marketing campaigns and products—such as "fan cans," store displays, and billboard ads—that ...

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

Modulating molecules: Study shows oxytocin helps the brain to modulate social signals

January 17, 2018
Between sights, sounds, smells and other senses, the brain is flooded with stimuli on a moment-to-moment basis. How can it sort through the flood of information to decide what is important and what can be relegated to the ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.