Joint Intentions

Human beings are biologically adapted for participating in collaborative activities involving shared goals and socially coordinated action plans (joint intentions).
— Tomasello, M., Carpenter, M., Call, J., Behne, T., & Moll, H. (2005). Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28(5), 675-735.

Figure 1. Human intentional action. The goal is an open box; reality is a closed box. The actor chooses a means (plan), depicted as hands doing things, which forms an intention. The resulting action causes a result, which leads to a reaction from the actor.

Tomasello, et al. use the example in Figure 1, to illustrate, with the GOAL as desiring a box to be open. "An INTENTION is a plan of action someone chooses and commits itself to in pursuit of a goal. An INTENTION thus includes both a means (action plan) as well as a goal (in Fig. 1, the intention includes both the goal of an open box as well as the action plan chosen to make that happen)" (676). "In choosing an intended course of action (decision making in Fig. 1), the organism consults both its stored knowledge/skills and its mental model of current reality --that is, those aspects that are "relevant" to the goal. The chosen action is "rational" to the degree that it effectively accommodates the organism's knowledge, skills, and model of current reality" (677). "The organism's intention typically results in a concrete behavioral action (large hand). This is often accompanied by such things as signs of effort and direction of gaze. Also relevant is current reality (closed box). After the action has taken place, the state of the world is transformed in one way or another (including no change), and we call this the result of the action" (677). "In figure 1. we can see various ways that the result may or may not match the goal. Quite often, each of these results is accompanied by an emotional reaction: disappointment at failure, happiness at success, and surprise at an accident. The two types of results representing failure are typically followed by persistent, often variable, efforts toward the goal. Finally, crucial to the whole process is the monitoring throughout (the dashed lines labeled Attention). Attention may be thought of as intentional perception or selective attention" (677).

"Once the organism chooses an action plan to enact in intentional action, it typically must also create lower-level goals and action plans. For example, in Figure 1 the plan chosen for achieving the goal of an open box might involve opening it with a key. This requires having an appropriate key in hand (as subgoal), which means creating a subplan to walk to the nearby drawer, open it, fetch the key, return to the box, and use the key. At each step of choosing a subgoal and subplan, there are potentially multiple possibilities to choose from, and these must be assessed with respect to their predicted efficacy -- what we will call decision making.

"SHARED INTENTIONALITY, sometimes called "we intentionality," refers to collaborative interactions in which participants have a shared goal (shared commitment), and coordinated action roles for pursuing that shared goal" (680).

Joint cooperative activities have three essential characteristics that distinguish them from social interactions in general: 1) the interactants are mutually responsive to one another; 2) there is a shared goal in the sense that we (in mutual knowledge) do X together, and 3) the participants coordinate their plans of action and intentions (which requires that both participants understand both roles of the interaction, role reversal, and so can at least potentially help the other with his role if needed).

Figure 2. Each partner's conception of a collaborative activity in which a shared goal and joint intention (with complementary roles) are formed.

Figure 2. Each partner's conception of a collaborative activity in which a shared goal and joint intention (with complementary roles) are formed.

"First and most important about Figure 2 is that the cognitive representation of the goal contains both the self and other: that is, it contains not only the self's goal that the box be open, but also the self's goal that this be accomplished with the partner." "The partner, assuming she also desires collaboration, also wants her partner to share her goal--thus creating a "shared commitment" (680). "This figure instantiates our claim that there is a special kind of shared motivation in truly collaborative activities in the form of a shared goal" (680).

"The second important aspect of this figure is that the cognitive representation of the intention also contains both self and other--it is thus a joint intention. This is necessary because both collaborators must choose their own action plan in the activity in light of (and coordinated with) the other's action plan: my role is to hold the box steady while you cut it open. This requires that each participant cognitively represent both roles of the collaboration in a single representational format--holistically from a "bird's eye view" as it were--thus enabling role reversal and mutual helping" (681).

perspective shifting discourse:

"Participating in linguistic communication with other persons (especially some forms of perspective-shifting discourse) is a crucial, perhaps even necessary, condition for normal development" of shared intentions (690).

- Tomasello, M., Carpenter, M., Call, J., Behne, T., & Moll, H. (2005). Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28(5), 675-735.

Synthesis by Sarah E. Dennis, Ph.D. (June 2014)