Learning about what others were doing: verb aspect and attributions of mundane and criminal intent for past actions

Psychol Sci. 2011 Feb;22(2):261-6. doi: 10.1177/0956797610395393. Epub 2010 Dec 30.


Scientists have long been interested in understanding how language shapes the way people relate to others, yet it remains unclear how formal aspects of language influence person perception. We tested whether the attribution of intentionality to a person is influenced by whether the person's behaviors are described as what the person was doing or as what the person did (imperfective vs. perfective aspect). In three experiments, participants who read what a person was doing showed enhanced accessibility of intention-related concepts and attributed more intentionality to the person, compared with participants who read what the person did. This effect of the imperfective aspect was mediated by a more detailed set of imagined actions from which to infer the person's intentions and was found for both mundane and criminal behaviors. Understanding the possible intentions of others is fundamental to social interaction, and our findings show that verb aspect can profoundly influence this process.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Concept Formation / physiology
  • Crime / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Intention*
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Language*
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Social Perception*
  • Students / psychology