Social capabilities of performing multiple-action sequences

June 26, 2013 — The day of the big barbecue arrives and it’s time to fire up the grill. But rather than toss the hamburgers and hotdogs haphazardly onto the grate, you wait for the heat to reach an optimal temperature, and then neatly lay them out in their apportioned areas according to size and cooking times. Meanwhile, your friend is preparing the beverages. Cups are grabbed face down from the stack, turned over, and — using the other hand — filled with ice.While these tasks — like countless, everyday actions — may seem trivial at first glance, they are actually fairly complex, according to Robrecht van der Wel, an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers-Camden. “For instance, the observation that you grab a glass differently when you are filling a beverage than when you are stacking glasses suggests that you are thinking about the goal that you want to achieve,” he says. “How do you manipulate the glass? How do you coordinate your actions so that the liquid goes into the cup? These kinds of actions are not just our only way to accomplish our intentions, but they reveal our intentions and mental states as well.”van der Wel and his research partners, Marlene Meyer and Sabine Hunnius, turned their attention to how action planning generalizes to collaborative actions performed with others in a study, titled Higher-order planning for individual and joint object manipulations, published recently in Experimental Brain Research.According to van der Wel, the researchers were especially interested in determining whether people’s actions exhibit certain social capabilities when performing multiple-action sequences in concert with a partner. “It is a pretty astonishing ability that we, as people, are able to plan and coordinate our actions with others,” says van der Wel. “If people plan ahead for themselves, what happens if they are now in a task where their action might influence another person’s comfort? …

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