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Int J Psychol. 2013;48(5):762-71. doi: 10.1080/00207594.2012.701750. Epub 2012 Oct 5.

The semantic specificity of gestures when verbal communication is not possible: the case of emergency evacuation.

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  • 1Faculty of Psychology, University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy.


The aim of the present study was to examine the comprehension of gesture in a situation in which the communicator cannot (or can only with difficulty) use verbal communication. Based on theoretical considerations, we expected to obtain higher semantic comprehension for emblems (gestures with a direct verbal definition or translation that is well known by all members of a group, or culture) compared to illustrators (gestures regarded as spontaneous and idiosyncratic and that do not have a conventional definition). Based on the extant literature, we predicted higher semantic specificity associated with arbitrarily coded and iconically coded emblems compared to intrinsically coded illustrators. Using a scenario of emergency evacuation, we tested the difference in semantic specificity between different categories of gestures. 138 participants saw 10 videos each illustrating a gesture performed by a firefighter. They were requested to imagine themselves in a dangerous situation and to report the meaning associated with each gesture. The results showed that intrinsically coded illustrators were more successfully understood than arbitrarily coded emblems, probably because the meaning of intrinsically coded illustrators is immediately comprehensible without recourse to symbolic interpretation. Furthermore, there was no significant difference between the comprehension of iconically coded emblems and that of both arbitrarily coded emblems and intrinsically coded illustrators. It seems that the difference between the latter two types of gestures was supported by their difference in semantic specificity, although in a direction opposite to that predicted. These results are in line with those of Hadar and Pinchas-Zamir (2004), which showed that iconic gestures have higher semantic specificity than conventional gestures.

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