Gesturing and shared attention

Even before children begin to speak, they are already communicating with the people around them: with the pointing gesture. This behavior may seem trivial, but it is very important for learning, and probably for the evolution, of human language. With the help of the pointing gesture and eye contact, two people can focus their attention together on one thing. This seems to be the basic requirement for other social skills: social learning and teaching, coordination of activities to achieve a common goal, and the ability to communicate about absent things.

Chimpanzees and other primates do not communicate with the pointing gesture with other conspecifics, and they do not understand them when other people want to show them something. Dogs however understand our pointing.

Anthropologists suggest that sharing information with others is a similar cooperative behavior as sharing resources with others. Apparently, the understanding and use of the pointing gesture requires a certain social temperament, which dogs have (due to domestication), but not chimpanzees.

  • Classroom material: Worksheet on pointing and shared attention (in preparation)


  • Bräuer, J., Kaminski, J., Riedel, J., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2006). Making inferences about the location of hidden food: Social dog, causal ape. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 120(1), 38–47.
  • Corballis, M. C. (2003). From mouth to hand: Gesture, speech, and the evolution of right-handedness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 26(2), 199–208.
  • Hare, B., Brown, M., Williamson, C., & Tomasello, M. (2002). The Domestication of Social Cognition in Dogs. Science, 298, 1634–1636.
  • Hare, B. A., Plyusnina, I., Ignacio, N., Schepina, Ol., Stepika, A., Wrangham, R. W., & Trut, L. (2005). Social Cognitive Evolution in Captive Foxes Is a Correlated By-Product of Experimental Domestication. Current Biology, 15, 226–230.
  • Tomasello, M. (2008). Origins of human communication. The Jean Nicod Lectures. Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press.
  • Tomasello, M., Carpenter, M., & Liszkowski, U. (2007). A new look at infant pointing. Child Development, 78(3), 705 – 722.