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J Exp Psychol Gen. 2011 Nov;140(4):586-604. doi: 10.1037/a0024310.

The shape of action.

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Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA.


How do people understand the everyday, yet intricate, behaviors that unfold around them? In the present research, we explored this by presenting viewers with self-paced slideshows of everyday activities and recording looking times, subjective segmentation (breakpoints) into action units, and slide-to-slide physical change. A detailed comparison of the joint time courses of these variables showed that looking time and physical change were locally maximal at breakpoints and greater for higher level action units than for lower level units. Even when slideshows were scrambled, breakpoints were regarded longer and were more physically different from ordinary moments, showing that breakpoints are distinct even out of context. Breakpoints are bridges: from one action to another, from one level to another, and from perception to conception.

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