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 finds popular 'growth mindset' educational interventions aren't very effective

May 22, 2018
A new study co-authored by researchers at Michigan State University and Case Western Reserve University found that "growth mindset interventions," or programs that teach students they can improve their intelligence with effort—and ...

Schizophrenics' blood has more genetic material from microbes

May 22, 2018
The blood of schizophrenia patients features genetic material from more types of microorganisms than that of people without the debilitating mental illness, research at Oregon State University has found.

Kids show adult-like intuition about ownership

May 22, 2018
Children as young as age three are able to make judgements about who owns an object based on its location, according to a study from the University of Waterloo.

Age-related racial disparity in suicide rates among US youth

May 21, 2018
New research suggests the suicide rate is roughly two times higher for black children ages 5-12 compared with white children of the same age group. The study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), appears ...

Schizophrenia more prevalent away from green spaces

May 21, 2018
People who grew up without green spaces are 50 per cent more likely to develop schizophrenia compared with those who grew up surrounded by greenery.

Cannabis—it matters how young you start

May 18, 2018
Canadian researchers find that boys who start smoking pot before 15 are much more likely to have a drug problem at 28 than those who start at 15 or after.


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.