Various enterprises and personal interests, such as Man-Machine Interaction (MMI), gesture studies, signs, language, social robotics, healthcare, innovation, music, publications, etc.

Category: Gesture Perception

Van Persie’s Nice Gesture Combi Mistaken for a Fascist Salute?

An interesting story in the news (here) and on YouTube today about gestures made by Robin van Persie. Best to watch the video first:

The video containing the gesture (for as long as it stays online…)

Apparently some people interpreted his gesture combination as the Roman/Fascist/Hitler greeting. He himself twittered in response:

Persie_Official Robin van Persie: It has been brought to my attention of some ridiculous allegations concerning my celebration of one of my goals yesterday. It is totally ludicrous to suggest that. My action of brushing my shoulder and pointing to my fans could be construed as anything else but of a showing of joy and celebration. To suggest this meant anything to the contrary is insulting and absolutely absurd as nothing else came into my mind.”

Apart from his grammar, I support his explanation of the gestures. “Brushing your shoulders” is indeed a Dutch gesture performed after performing great feats to indicate “that only ruffled my suit a bit” or “that hardly cost any effort”. Often accompanied with a grin or smirk and brash composure (as displayed here as well). And in this case he uses a salute to direct the gesture towards the audience, which I would interpret as an additional “and I do it all for you”.

This is however also a wonderful example of the importance of context, the perception of intentions, and the sensitivities of observers when it comes to interpreting the meaning of gestures. Someone who is suspicious of Van Persie (for whatever reason) or otherwise prone to ascribe ill intentions to him, may actually look at these gestures, in this situation, quite differently than most people. In this case however it would mean they think extremely lowly of him and of the Arsenal fans. Their line of thinking would run roughly as follows (and just to be certain: I do not agree with it): “I hate fascists/nazi’s. Van Persie may well a secret fascist/nazi. There are more like him in the Arsenal audience that he wishes to salute. He is using the pretext of cheering after a goal to make a (badly) camouflaged fascist salute. But he won’t get away with it, because I saw what I saw.” Well, I pity the one who thinks like that, sorry.

Just to end on a positive note: congrats to Van Persie for a wonderful performance. My hat’s off to you. You indeed make it look so easy sometimes.

M. Obama and Sembiring: The Handshake that Shook Indonesia

In the news today, another wonderful gesture story. An Indonesian politician, Tifatul Sembiring, shook hands with Michelle Obama. Sembiring is a conservative Muslim who states that he should not touch women who aren’t related to him (he avoided doing so while meeting Tsunami victims for example). Sembiring quickly tried to spin the story via Twitter and said:

I tried to prevent [being touched] with my hands but Mrs. Michelle held her hands too far toward me [so] we touched.

Here are a couple of video’s for you to see for yourself…

At first glance, it looks Sembiring doesn’t have much of a point, but I am actually inclined to grant him his point anyway, though not entirely. Here’s why: Michelle Obama can be seen to initiate the handshake, as she raises her arm and hand towards him (although it is not very clearly visible). At that point, Sembiring is already ‘forced’, in a way, to respond, or otherwise, if he left her hand hanging there without taking it, he might cause an awkward situation and possibly a loss of face for her, for him or both.

There is however a counterargument: Sembiring appears to quickly glance down just before the handshake which Michelle Obama could have seen as a cue to initiate a handshake. He is also in a posture that is open to shaking hands, probably caused by just shaking her husband’s hand, with hands available and an inviting demeanor. She may be looking for such cues if she is sensitive to the issue of shaking or not shaking hands.

It would be interesting to know if she avoided shaking hands with some other conservative Muslems in the line, or that she simply shook all their hands? The man to the left of Sembiring appears to do a better job of avoiding the handshake, by keeping his hands to his side and by looking mostly at pres. Obama’s face. As far as I can tell, Michelle Obama does not (try to) shake hands with that man.

So Sembiring’s mistake, if you want to call it that, might not be that he took her hand and shook it, but that he invited the initiating of the handshake through his behaviour (his eye gaze, and his posture). And then again, if you just shook hands with the US president, would you be strong enough to control your body language to such a degree?

Thesis of Mats Andrén

For those among you who are interested in good gesture research it may be of interest to know that Mats Andrén, from Lund University, has published (online) his thesis called Children’s Gestures from 18 to 30 months. So far, I am enjoying reading it very much. Good job, Mats, and good luck with the defense 🙂

Is Obama just fidgeting or giving the finger?

Typically, people can see whether a movement is intended to communicate (a.k.a. a gesture) or whether the movement’s producer has some other intention, be it practical or just fidgeting. There are however plenty of examples where the movement is ambiguous: it could be a gesture but it could also be a meaningless incidental movement. Barack Obama produced such a movement during a speech. Watch and judge for yourself.

Did Obama just flip off Clinton or was he merely scratching his cheek?

Again, like in many other cases where the nature of a movement was debated, there is a potential insult to be considered. It is almost as if people are more sensitive to potentially insulting gestures then to other gestures. Some people, like Lehmann or Mr Wood even use this sensitivity to their advantage. They camouflage their insulting gesture and thus create ambiguity on purpose. Those who have a reason to feel offended are insulted by the ‘gesture’. Other people only see a cactus or someone scratching his head.

I would predict that if people must judge if a movement is intended to communicate they will do so more often when that would mean it is an insult than when that would mean it is some other gesture. (Question: Can you think of an experiment to test this prediction?)

BTW, there is a very interesting related paper on this topic from a psychiatric perspective:

Bucci, Sandra, Mike Startup, Paula Wynn, Amanda Baker, & Terry J. Lewin. (2008). Referential delusions of communication and interpretations of gestures. Psychiatry Research, 158(1), 27-34. (Scopus)

Gestures are an important aspect of non-verbal communication, but people with schizophrenia have poor comprehension of them. However, the tests of gesture comprehension that have been used present only scenes in which interpersonal meaning is communicated, though there is evidence that people with psychotic disorders tend to perceive communications where none were intended. Such mistakes about non-verbal behaviour are the hallmark of a subtype of delusions of reference identified as delusions of communication. Thus we hypothesised that patients with delusions of communication would tend to misinterpret incidental movements as gestures and, since delusions are often derogatory to the self, they would also tend to misinterpret gestures as insulting. Patients with acute psychotic symptoms (n = 64) were recruited according to a 2 × 2 design (presence vs. absence of delusions of communication by presence vs. absence of auditory hallucinations). They, and 57 healthy controls, were presented with 20 brief video clips in which an actor either made a well-known gesture or an incidental movement. After each clip, they selected one of four interpretations: a correct interpretation if a gesture had been presented; the interpretation of a different gesture; an insulting interpretation; no gesture intended (correct for incidental movements). The patients made significantly more errors of all kinds than the controls, perceived significantly more of the incidental movements as gestures, and selected significantly more insulting interpretations of the clips. These differences between patients and controls were almost wholly due to patients with delusions of communication. These results suggest that the difficulties that people with delusions of communication experience in understanding gestures can be explained, at least in part, by the misattribution of self-generated internal events to external sources.

Perhaps we all suffer from delusions of communication to some degree when we are in a situation where we expect to be insulted (rightly or wrongly). I know I always check for fingers when I feel I did something impolite in traffic. Don’t you?

Context Changes Gesture Perception

Here is a movie of one very powerful bionic finger:

The question I want to put forward is: How much of the time is this guy actually gesturing? My guess would be that he does not really give anyone or anything the finger anywhere. He holds up his bionic finger for inspection, he talks to it as he watches it, he is using it as a scanner, fighting with in different ways, but he never actually flips the bird. He doesn’t really make the gesture. Therefore, besides being funny, this video neatly demonstrates how context changes the perception of (insulting) gestures.

I just waved at a wagging tail…

“Oh, no”, I found myself thinking about 20 minutes ago, “Adam Kendon was right and my family is wrong”. And all because a dog wagged his tail and I waved at it.

dag wagging tail
Nice to meet you too, dog. (source)

I recently formulated some hypotheses about the perception of waving on behalf of, or inspired by, my son Rik:

H0: Waving is limited to humans and contexts such as greeting or saying goodbye where waving is to be expected
H1: Anything can and will be seen as waving as long as the movement characteristics are right (e.g. repeated small side-to-side arched movement, from rotation around fixed point)
H1b: Anything can wave, but only if it has something resembling hands

Actually Rik only proposed “Snoopy has hands, thus he can say ‘bye’ with them”, which I turned around into the negative form of “If it [Snoopy] does not have hands it cannot wave [say ‘bye’ with them]”.

dag wagging tail
Anything can be given hands (source).

At first sight the null-hypothesis seems ridiculous. Anyone in their right mind will have countless experiences concerning waving dolls, snowmen, and other assorted electrical toys. It is easy to see the weirdest cartoon characters (think SpongeBob and friends) waving in all sorts of ways to each other or even at the viewer. But I will posit here as an additional explanation of H0 that such waving is caused by anthropomorphisation. We pretend these toys and cartoon characters are real humans. Thus, we play along with their makers who already suggest strongly that we do so, by labeling their products as toys or cartoons. We are supposed to see waving and we go along with it.

I think it is important to separate anthropomorphisation from other factors in wave perception. I suppose H1b may in fact be a special version of the anthropomorphisation position. Perhaps if we are supposed to see hands, we are also supposed to see waving. Snoopy has something I am supposed to see hands, therefore I am supposed to accept his waving. The question rises if it is possible for some non-human object to have ‘hands’ but not be the subject of anthropomorphisation. Or is in fact the projection of ‘hands’ an immediate case of anthropomorphisation. I will leave this matter open for now.

It is at least clear that there are also cases where neither anthropomorphisation is at work, nor are their hands, yet still a ‘waving movement’ is present. We may think of waving grass, trees waving in the wind, animals shaking their heads or limbs, or mechanical devices other than toys or robots. Will the waving movement in such cases cause us to be (temporarily) fooled and see waving. Can we create the illusion of waving without resorting to hands or the suggestion of human characteristics? That is what we need in order to support H1 that anything can be seen as waving.

Well, I still have to design a nice experiment (or maybe someone else can) to get to the bottom of this, but I do have a case study now that I would like to share with you:

I was driving in my car and another car was driving about 20 meters in front of me. I suddenly spotted movement in the backseat of the car, which I recognized as waving (I was guessing that a couple of kids were waving through the rear window) and I waved back. The car slowed and as I came closer I noticed that I had waved to the wagging tail of a big german shepherd dog. The dog was moving around in the trunk of the stationwagon. I will ask you: was I first speculating there were kids before I saw them ‘waving’? Or did I first see the illusion of ‘waving’ and then projected a couple of kids to fit the illusion? I think the latter is true and H1 is supported, but the question remains to what extent the rear window context sparked the waving illusion.

waving man in car
Do you always spot wavers from cars?

I sometimes see kids waving from cars at me and I always like to wave back. It is probably safe to say I am very sensitive to waving from rear windows of cars. Other people may be totally insensitive to it, even to the point that they wouldn’t see it if the kids were frantically waving at them from a car only three feet away. I hope the driver of the car in front of me was one of them.

Czech PM Topolanek Denies Finger

The Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek possibly faces a fine for giving the finger to another Czech politician KSÄŒM Deputy Vladimír KoníÄ?ek, who was offended by the gesture and filed a complaint.

Politicians, always trying to express their opinions carefully? (source)

(Prague Monitor) Topolánek unfurled an erect middle finger 2 February when opposition deputies complained about cabinet members’ absence from the parliamentary session. He later maintained that the gesture was directed at Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek (KDU-ÄŒSL) and was intended to communicate, “You’re number one.” KoníÄ?ek rejected the PM’s explanation. “Deputy Topolánek performed the gesture behind my back in my direction. I have been offended and I want to instigate a disciplinary procedure,” KoníÄ?ek wrote in his complaint to the committee.

It’s not often you hear such a blatant denial of the insult intended, though it reminds me of Mick Bates. Usually people try to pass it off as innocent jest. But Topolánek’s explanation that he meant to say “you’re number one” is outright hilarious. I can think of a hundred ways of gesturing that someone is number one, OK, a Top Gun, an Ace, or my best buddy, but the digitus impudicus (known throughout the galaxy) is not one of them, I am afraid. I wonder what the sanction will be this time?

Update 22 feb: Czech PM Topolánek not fined, but reprimanded for obscene gesture

Reward Increased to 200 euro

Reward 200 euro

So far, there have been no takers of my reward on evidence of cross-cultural gesture mix-up stories. The reward is raised from 150 euro to 200 euro. If you are certain such misunderstanding occur often please keep your camera ready to capture them.

Fidgeting is to Gesture as ‘Ehm’ is to Speech?

Some people are actively interested in the stuff I am doing in my PhD studies, or at least they ask me questions about it. I usually tell them about my first experiment. That experiment was entirely about the difference between meaningless movements I call fidgeting and meaningful gestures, in this case sign language signs.

“Press the spacebar as soon as you see a sign”

It struck me then, and it still strikes me, that a bunch of people talking respond to each other so appropriately. Many, many times I saw people reacting to gestures of all sorts. Maybe just a little headnod or a palm-up gesture, or a raising of the eyebrows. And how often do you see anyone accidentally responding to a movement that was not intended to communicate after all?

Imagine the following chitchat:
You: “Nice weather huh?”
Her: “Yeah” (and makes some sort of movement)
You: “What do you mean, you think I am crazy?” (misinterpreting the movement)
Her: “I didn’t do anything, what are you talking about?” (now starts thinking you are crazy)

Rather unlikely? It just doesn’t happen. No matter how much we talk and interact, it hardly ever goes wrong. I will take the exceptional examples as exemplifying the rule.

So, I set out to see if I could test this in a lab. How fast can people make judgements about the status of a movement. I used sign language signs and fidgeting, and told people to press a button as soon as they saw a sign. And I found people could do that very well and very fast. Even non-signers could do it. (In case you want to read more: the journal Gesture recently accepted my publication of these results, hooray!).

If you want you can repeat the experiment in real life whenever you (and a friend) watch a conversation. Just put up your finger as soon as you see the talking people make a gesture. I bet you will both skip the fidgeting and spot the gestures.

Now, imagine a gesture recognizing computer trying to do the same trick and ignore fidgeting. Currently computers that are programmed to recognize gestures, simply assume any movement is a gesture candidate, and will try to classify it against their vocabulary.

In speech recognition one might see a similar problem. People say things like “ehm” or “ehr..” during an utterance. They may also cough, sneeze or scrape their throat. But is that really comparable to fidgeting? I am tempted to think that they are quite different. Coughing or sneezing is a bodily function, whereas fidgeting is usually just a ritualized watered-down version of some bodily function, if any. The reason behind it is quite different. Saying “ehm” is mostly a way to fill the gap, or keep the floor, in a poorly planned utterance. It is in a way as much a deliberate part of the communication as the words used. Nevertheless the computers task is more or less the same: it must withstand the disruptions and continue recognizing the words (or gestures) as if nothing happened. Both “ehm” and fidgeting should be ignored without damaging other processes. And that is quite a challenge as it is.

In speech recognition several techniques have been invented to cope with “ehm” and out-of-vocabulary (OOV) words. Most importantly ‘word spotting’ and ‘filler and garbage models’. Perhaps gesture recognition would do well to have a closer look at those techniques to start safely ignoring fidgeting?

Did my nephew just fidget or gesture?

Sometimes science is what happens while you are making research plans. One of my favorite topics for research plans is what makes a gesture a gesture. I ask myself if gestures are always clearly visible? And if so, is that universally true or culture-specific? What is the influence of context? Which circumstances increase the chance that a movement will be seen as a gesture? What role does the sensitivity of onlookers play in their own perception but also in the production of gesturers? To my surprise my 1 year old nephew Marco, visiting the Dutch family with his Italian mama and Dutch papa, answered my unspoken questions. What did he do? He twisted his finger in his ear during lunch with a big smile. Although you may find his action a bit uncivilized let me rush to his defence. At first I just saw his action, and barely noticed it. I had discarded it as just fidgeting. But then his mother remarked ‘ah, you like it, yes?’. Suddenly it dawned on me. It was a cheek screw! But little Marco did not make it exactly right. He screwed his ear instead of his cheek. His mom told me later this happens often.

The cheek screw meaning 'Good', as portrayed in Desmond Morris: Gestures (1979)
What does this mean for a boy from Palermo? (source Gestures, their origins and distribution. Desmond Morris, 1979)

I was forced to go over my own perception of this event. For me, the cheek screw is a gesture (meaning ‘Good’ or praise) that I only knew from reading. The Dutch do not use it. Perhaps I would have seen it immediately if I was Italian? In all likelyhood, Marco’s cheek screw is part of little rituals of communication with his mom and dad. He is learning, practising and his family is alert and responsive to his behaviour. My own involvement, as an uncle at a distance, is much smaller, though I try to interact with him as much as possible.

Let us return to the questions at the beginning with this case in mind to see the answers it may give. This cheek screw gesture was not clearly visible. It is a culture-specific gesture which may explain partly my inability to see it at first. The context of eating and Marco’s interaction with his mom made me see the gesture for what it was: an reasonably succesful attempt at a cheek screw to indicate he liked the food. The circumstances of his age and stage of development of his communication skills work to increase my sensitivity (I pay more attention) and tolerance (I try to understand what he intends to communicate). That is true for my interaction with my own children as well. Does this mean that seeing a gesture in a movement always requires the right context and the right cultural knowledge? No, it is just one case of a small kid growing up, a cheek screw, a mother and an uncle. Or in other words, for fans of human universals: It may well be that all little kids in all cultures learn to make gestures in ways that are so similar (universal) that when they are a bit older their distant uncles will always see their nephews’ intention to communicate, even if their exact meaning may escape those uncles. At the same time little kids gesturing can rely on several things. They operate within their parents’ culture. Mom and dad pay attention to their communicative attempts and are tolerant about mistakes. Furthermore they usually understand the needs of the situation.

From kids it is a small step to adults. We all may rely on exactly the same things. A gesture for a cultural insider who is paying attention can be made with just a subtle movement. If the context is clear the gesture will be perceived without problems. Conversely, if the context is ambiguous (not a shared understanding), two people from different cultures may well have more difficulties. In a way, strangers should act towards each other as a parent to a child: Use whatever clues you can to understand the needs of the situation, pay attention to communicative attempts and tolerate mistakes. Such goodwill gestures will surely be appreciated.

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