Understanding and sharing intentions: the origins of cultural cognition

Michael Tomasello, Malinda Carpenter, Josep Call, Tanya Behne, Henrike Moll

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2341 Citations (Scopus)


We propose that the crucial difference between human cognition and that of other species is the ability to participate with others in collaborative activities with shared goals and intentions: shared intentionality. Participation in such activities requires not only especially powerful forms of intention reading and cultural learning, but also a unique motivation to share psychological states with others and unique forms of cognitive representation for doing so. The result of participating in these activities is species-unique forms of cultural cognition and evolution, enabling everything from the creation and use of linguistic symbols to the construction of social norms and individual beliefs to the establishment of social institutions. In support of this proposal we argue and present evidence that great apes (and some children with autism) understand the basics of intentional action, but they still do not participate in activities involving joint intentions and attention (shared intentionality). Human children's skills of shared intentionality develop gradually during the first 14 months of life as two ontogenetic pathways intertwine: (1) the general ape line of understanding others as animate, goal-directed, and intentional agents; and (2) a species-unique motivation to share emotions, experience, and activities with other persons. The developmental outcome is children's ability to construct dialogic cognitive representations, which enable them to participate in earnest in the collectivity that is human cognition.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)675-691
JournalBehavioral and Brain Sciences
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2005


  • Aging
  • Animals
  • Autistic Disorder
  • Biological Evolution
  • Cognition
  • Cooperative Behavior
  • Culture
  • Goals
  • Humans
  • Primates
  • Social Behavior
  • Volition


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