Faces of ESLR: Gemma Mackintosh

From the beginning of my undergraduate degree in Psychology at the University of Dundee, I have been interested in the intricacies of human communication and coordination. During my undergraduate I worked as a research assistant for an eye tracking lab exploring how coordination is facilitated by effective use of gaze cues from a partner when solving a joint task.  I studied this further by focusing my final year dissertation on the differences in joint attention use during collaborative versus competitive tasks.  

My main research interest is in human communication, specifically the uniquely human capacities that allow for a high fidelity transfer of information, such as teaching, i.e.  communication with the intent to improve another’s knowledge. It is thought that humans are particularly good at this because of an increased propensity for mental state reasoning, which allows for information sending tailored to the needs of the learner

My PhD research focuses on the role of mental state reasoning in facilitating cumulative cultural evolution. I do this by manipulating intentional information transfer, which is considered to be particularly special in humans due to the presence of mental state reasoning. 

I am currently working on methods of testing intentional knowledge transmission over generations. When transmission occurs through a learning bottleneck (i.e. only limited information is provided), intentional information sharing facilitates the accumulation of beneficial information, relative to inadvertent social information.  When participants could choose what information to send, a small subset of information was as helpful to the information-receiver as full information in accruing benefits over generations, whereas randomly generated information did not have any benefit at all. This is due to the information-provider’s potential for highlighting information likely to hold the greatest value for the information-receiver. In a developmental version of this experiment, we found that this benefit of intentional knowledge transmission compared with inadvertent social information is more apparent in older children compared with younger age groups. Such age differences are consistent with the idea that effective intentional knowledge transmission is dependent on other relatively late-developing cognitive capacities, such as metacognition and mental state reasoning.  

I hope to continue exploring this phenomenon, particularly with regards to perspective taking – specifically, how having a differing perspective from the information-receiver affects the information providers’ ability to generate useful and relevant information.