Pointing makes kids believe you. And it may convey an air of authority to adults, too.
That's the finding of a pair of psychologists at the University of Virginia. In a new study probing how young children make inferences about what other people know, co-authors Carolyn Palmquist and Vikram Jaswalfound that adults can convince a 4-year-old that they know something simply by pointing while delivering the message. This act even overrides all other evidence that the adult is clueless.
"Children were willing to attribute knowledge to a person solely based on the gesture they used to convey the information," Palmquist said in a news release. "They have built up such a strong belief in the knowledge that comes along with pointing that it trumps everything else, including what they see with their eyes."
The researchers had 48 preschoolers watch several video clips showing two women, four overturned cups and a ball. In all the clips, one woman, the "hider," announced that she was going to hide a ball under one of the cups. The other woman covered her eyes and turned to the wall, and the hider placed a barrier in front of the cups to block the children's view of which cup she was hiding the ball under. The barrier was then removed and the other woman turned around.
Next, the video clips diverged: In the control setup, after the ball was hidden, both women sat with their hands in their laps. Another clip had an alternate ending, in which each woman grasped a different cup; and in the final variation, each woman pointed at a different cup. In each case, the children were asked which woman knew were the ball was.
When both women grasped cups or kept their hands in their laps, the children gave the correct answer — attributing knowledge of the ball's location to the hider — about 75 percent of the time. (The authors concluded that grasping was either not a meaningful hand gesture to the children, or it was associated with searching for the ball rather than knowing its whereabouts.) However, when both women pointed at a cup, the children chose the hider, the woman who actually knew the ball's location, only about half the time. Statistically, as a group, the 4-year-olds considered the women to be equally likely to know the ball's location.
They thought the woman who didn't see where the ball was hidden must have had some other way of knowing its whereabouts — because otherwise, why did she point? "From an early age, when children see pointing, they understand it as an important gesture used in contexts of teaching and learning," Palmquist explained. "Generally people point because they have good reason to do it." [Simple Gesturing Helps Students Learn]
Though adults probably wouldn't commit the surprising error made by the 4-year-olds in the study, the researchers do believe pointing continues to inordinately impress us throughout our lives. "We continue to use pointing, even as adults, as a sign of something important or interesting in the environment," Palmquist told Life's Little Mysteries. "So while we might not be as easily misled by pointing as these children were, as adults, we still might have implicit assumptions about why people would take the time to point something out and what kind of knowledge generally goes along with someone's pointing gesture."
Additionally, the finding likely pertains to all the world's cultures, not just Westerners who point things out with our index fingers. In other cultures, elbows, chins or other fingers are used instead. "Bearing [this] in mind, I would think that index finger pointing would only have an effect in those cultures where it is paired with knowledge and used in teaching and learning situations (like we use it). However, equivalent gestures in other cultures might have the same impact if they are used in a similar way," she said.
Palmquist plans to continue investigating the power of pointing in future studies.
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Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.