March 4, 2012

Pointing Makes Your Point

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Chris Galloway, M.D. By:

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Preschoolers trust pointing over other gestures

(dailyRx News) Rationalizing with children can be difficult, whether you’re experienced with kids or not; yet new research suggests pointing may help.

While studying the reactions of preschoolers to the gestures of adults, Vikram Jaswal, Ph.D., and Carolyn Palmquist, Ph.D.-candidate, uncovered that the simple act of pointing helps young children build associations and understanding.

"To help get your point across, point."

"From an early age, when children see pointing, they understand it as an important gesture used in contexts of teaching and learning," explains Palmquist. "Generally people point because they have good reason to do it."

Within their study, forty-eight preschoolers were shown a video of two women playing a game.   Woman “A” hid a ball from woman “B” under one of four cups, and then both "A" and "B" used body signals to distract the children.  

Their teacher thereafter asked the kids which of the two women knew where the ball was.

For one-third of the students, the women each used their finger to point at a cup they thought had the ball. For a subsequent third, the women each grasped the top of a cup with their hand, and for the final third, the women touched no cup at all, simply sitting with their hands on their lap.

Grasping was used as a “comparison gesture” under the idea that children understand it’s an intentional act, like pointing, and the stationary position was used as a control.  

While children watching both the grasp and control videos guessed woman “A” correctly seventy-five percent of the time, “children in the point condition performed at chance level,” authors write, guessing the wrong woman fifty-percent of the time.  

Palmquist doesn’t believe this group was any less intelligent than the rest, just that they trusted more. She says humans are "uniquely inclined toward cooperative communication,” and, "This finding fits into that framework.

“The children are already expecting that people will be helpful and knowledgeable, especially since they're using these cues."

And these results aren’t necessarily restricted to kids. In speeches and presentations alike, the use of laser pointers and other directing devices help speakers facilitate their conversation and keep people on track. Palmquist believes its so effective because “generally people point because they have good reason to do it.”

This study was funded through the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and published in the journal Psychological Science. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

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Reviewed by: 
Chris Galloway, M.D.
Review Date: 
March 2, 2012

Last Updated:
March 4, 2012