The engaging nature of interactive gestures

PLoS One. 2020 Apr 23;15(4):e0232128. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0232128. eCollection 2020.


The social interactions that we experience from early infancy often involve actions that are not strictly instrumental but engage the recipient by eliciting a (complementary) response. Interactive gestures may have privileged access to our perceptual and motor systems either because of their intrinsically engaging nature or as a result of extensive social learning. We compared these two hypotheses in a series of behavioral experiments by presenting individuals with interactive gestures that call for motor responses to complement the interaction ('hand shaking', 'requesting', 'high-five') and with communicative gestures that are equally socially relevant and salient, but do not strictly require a response from the recipient ('Ok', 'Thumbs up', 'Peace'). By means of a spatial compatibility task, we measured the interfering power of these task-irrelevant stimuli on the behavioral responses of individuals asked to respond to a target. Across three experiments, our results showed that the interactive gestures impact on response selection and reduce spatial compatibility effects as compared to the communicative (non-interactive) gestures. Importantly, this effect was independent of the activation of specific social scripts that may interfere with response selection. Overall, our results show that interactive gestures have privileged access to our perceptual and motor systems, possibly because they entail an automatic preparation to respond that involuntary engages the motor system of the observers. We discuss the implications from a developmental and neurophysiological point of view.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality
  • Gestures*
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Motion Perception
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Space Perception / physiology
  • Visual Perception / physiology
  • Young Adult

Grants and funding

European Research Council under the European Union's Seventh Framework Program (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC grant agreement n° 609819, SOMICS, and by ERC grant agreement n° 616072, JAXPERTISE.