Visual categorization of social interactions

Stephan de la Rosa, Rabia N. Choudhery, Cristóbal Curio, Shimon Ullman, Liav Assif, Heinrich H. Bülthoff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


Prominent theories of action recognition suggest that during the recognition of actions the physical patterns of the action is associated with only one action interpretation (e.g., a person waving his arm is recognized as waving). In contrast to this view, studies examining the visual categorization of objects show that objects are recognized in multiple ways (e.g., a VW Beetle can be recognized as a car or a beetle) and that categorization performance is based on the visual and motor movement similarity between objects. Here, we studied whether we find evidence for multiple levels of categorization for social interactions (physical interactions with another person, e.g., handshakes). To do so, we compared visual categorization of objects and social interactions (Experiments 1 and 2) in a grouping task and assessed the usefulness of motor and visual cues (Experiments 3, 4, and 5) for object and social interaction categorization. Additionally, we measured recognition performance associated with recognizing objects and social interactions at different categorization levels (Experiment 6). We found that basic level object categories were associated with a clear recognition advantage compared to subordinate recognition but basic level social interaction categories provided only a little recognition advantage. Moreover, basic level object categories were more strongly associated with similar visual and motor cues than basic level social interaction categories. The results suggest that cognitive categories underlying the recognition of objects and social interactions are associated with different performances. These results are in line with the idea that the same action can be associated with several action interpretations (e.g., a person waving his arm can be recognized as waving or greeting).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1233-1271
Number of pages39
JournalVisual Cognition
Publication statusPublished - 2015 Feb 3

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Please address all correspondence to Stephan de la Rosa or Heinrich H. Bülthoff, Department of Human Perception, Cognition and Action, Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, Spemannstrasse 38, 72076 Tübingen, Germany. E-mail:; or heinrich. We thank Betty Mohler, Stephan Streuber, Kathrin Kaulard, Johannes Schultz, and Julia Gatzek, for their help in creating some of the stimuli. We thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. This research was supported by the EU Project “TANGO” [ICT-2009-C 249858] and by the WCU (World Class University) program funded by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology through the National Research Foundation of Korea [R31-10008] awarded to HHB. SU, LA were supported by ERC Advanced [grant number 269627] Digital Baby.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015, © 2015 Taylor & Francis.


  • Basic level
  • Objects
  • Social interactions
  • Sub-ordinate level
  • Visual categorization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


Dive into the research topics of 'Visual categorization of social interactions'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this