Eye Movements Reveal How Readers Infer Intentions From the Beliefs and Desires of Others

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Abstract

We examine how the beliefs and desires of a protagonist are used by readers to predict their intentions as a narrative vignette unfolds. Eye movement measures revealed that readers rapidly inferred an intention when the protagonist desired an outcome, even when this inference was not licensed by the protagonist’s belief state. Reading was immediately disrupted when participants encountered a described action that contradicted this inference. During intermediate processing, desire inferences were moderated by the protagonist’s belief state. Effects that emerged later in the text were again driven solely by the protagonist’s desires. These data suggest that desire-based inferences are initially drawn irrespective of belief state, but are then quickly inhibited if not licensed by relevant beliefs. This inhibition of desire-based inferences may be an effortful process as it was not systematically sustained in later steps of processing.

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