Communicative eye contact signals a commitment to cooperate for young children

Barbora Siposova, Michael Tomasello, Malinda Carpenter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Citations (Scopus)


Making commitments to cooperate facilitates cooperation. There is a long-standing theoretical debate about how promissory obligations come into existence, and whether linguistic acts (such as saying “I promise”) are a necessary part of the process. To inform this debate we experimentally investigated whether even minimal, nonverbal behavior can be taken as a commitment to cooperate, as long as it is communicative. Five- to 7-year-old children played a Stag Hunt coordination game in which they needed to decide whether to cooperate or play individually. During the decision-making phase, children’s partner made either ostensive, communicative eye contact or looked non-communicatively at them. In Study 1 we found that communicative looks produced an expectation of collaboration in children. In Study 2 we found that children in the communicative look condition normatively protested when their partner did not cooperate, thus showing an understanding of the communicative looks as a commitment to cooperate. This is the first experimental evidence, in adults or children, that in the right context, communicative, but not non-communicative, looks can signal a commitment.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)192-201
Early online date28 Jun 2018
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2018


  • Communicative eye contact
  • Commitment
  • Nonverbal communication
  • Cooperation
  • Coordination
  • Stag hunt game


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