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In our experiment, participants watched videotaped recordings of vehicular accidents, and were asked, "What was happening?" (imperfective framing) or "What happened" (perfective framing). The main goal was to investigate how different aspectual framings in the question would influence participants' descriptions. We predicted that imperfective framing would lead to more verbiage about motion because imperfective aspect draws attention to action details, and that it would lead to more verbiage about reckless driving.

We were also interested in how aspectual framing might affect non-verbal communication. Gestures are important to everyday conversation because they facilitate lexical access (Krauss, Morrel-Samuels and Colasante 1991) and contribute semantic content (e.g. McNeill 1992), including metaphorical content (e.g. Cienki and Mueller 2008, Cooperider and Nunez 2009, Chui 2011). Gestures plays a role in coordinating joint activities (Clark and Krych 2004), describing abstract objects (Bavelas et al. 1992) and abstract systems, such as time (Nunez and Sweetser 2006) and mathematics (Nunez 2009). Gestures also facilitate reasoning and learning (Goldin-Meadow 2003, Goldin-Meadow, Cook and Mitchell 2009, Schwartz and Black 1996). Gestures can be categorized along various dimensions, depending on semantic domain, purpose, and level of analysis (see Kendon 2004, McNeill 2000).

Gesture researchers often make a distinction between beat gestures and iconic gestures. Beat gestures convey no semantic information per se. They are brief, rhythmic hand movements that regulate speech and facilitate lexical access (see Krauss 1998). For instance, in talking to a colleague, you start to recommend a good pizza restaurant. You say, "You should try.. uh.." and while struggling to recall the restaurant's name, you produce two quick circular gestures that help you remember. You blurt out, "Cheeseboard!" In contrast, iconic gestures do convey semantic information. They provide information about manner and direction of motion in addition to information about objects, including shape, size, and position (McNeill, 2007). For instance, in talking about the pizza restaurant, you say, "Sometimes they hand you a free baguette." While uttering this statement, you make a path gesture away from the body, loosely depicting the action of handing an object to someone else.

Participants, materials, and methods

Twenty-two University of California, Merced, undergraduate students volunteered to serve as experimental participants (17 women, 5 men). All received extra credit in a cognitive science or psychology course. All were proficient speakers of English, either native speakers of English or bilinguals with dominant English experience. All had normal or corrected vision.[1]

After signing a consent form, participants entered a small lab room, where they were asked to stand in front a computer that sat on a small table. A video camera, which was affixed to a tripod, was positioned about four feet from participants. Participants read a set of instructions that were displayed on the computer screen before the experiment, and pressed a key on the keyboard to begin. Participants were alone during the experiment, and debriefed once they had finished. Most individuals took 10 to 15 minutes to complete all six videos.

Scene #

Description of scenes

Scene 1

A car speeding down the freeway sideswipes a van, which then smashes into a truck,

causing it to crash into the center divide.

Scene 2

A person hops on a moped, and topples over after riding only a few feet.

Scene 3

A truck spins out of control on an icy road, and barely avoids hitting nearby vehicles.

Scene 4

A pair of monster trucks are racing. One flips over, destroying a sign and two police

cars before exploding.

Scene 5

A car suddenly crashes into a tow truck that is parked on the side of the road.

Scene 6

A police car is pursuing a truck, which eventually swerves off the road and crashes

into the underside of an overpass.

Participants were randomly assigned to either the perfective condition or to the imperfective condition. Participants in the imperfective condition read these instructions: "In this study, you will watch short videos of actions. After each one, you will be asked what was happening. Your job will be to simply tell the video camera what was happening in everyday English. This is not a test and there is no right or wrong way to report what was happening. Press the space bar to continue." In addition, a brief instruction appeared after each scenario, and asked participants, "What was happening?" Participants in the perfective condition were presented with the same instructions except "what was happening" had been replaced with "what happened".

The videos were taken from, and each was edited to play for about 30 seconds. They were randomly ordered for each participant, and played without sound. Each video showed vehicles in accidents or near accidents, for instance, a car crashing into a tow truck on the side of the road. Table 1 provides an overview of each scenario.

  • [1] An additional eight individuals participated, but their data were not analyzed because of technical problems during recording, or because they maintained a posture that did not allow for gesture (e.g. leaned on the table the entire time). Because gesture and speech are tightly coupled in retelling, the best course of action was to conduct analyses on data from the 22 individuals who produced gestures that could be viewed and coded.
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