About this topic

Joint attention involves two (or more) subjects attending to an event or object together, where the attention of each participant is to some degree dependent on the attention of the other. It is sometimes said that joint attention is ‘wholly overt’ or ‘out in the open’ between the participants, where this means that they are both fully aware that they are together attending to the event or object (although so-called 'lean' accounts of joint attention, deny that this is a necessary condition for joint attention).  A canonical example of joint attention would be where two people are sitting opposite each other, discussing and observing an object that lies between them. The phenomena can be contrasted with shared attention where two people are each attending to an object, but are doing so separately, such that the attention of each person is of no relevance to the other, and does not figure in their experience.

Philosophical discussions of joint attention have tended to focus on two questions: firstly, how the apparent epistemic and phenomenological openness of joint attention can be explained without recourse to a complex series of overlapping and embedded mental states. Secondly, how joint attention can be understood as providing a normative and evidential basis for communication and joint action.  Within cognitive science, joint attention has been discussed with relation to the nature of autism, the Theory of Mind debate, the development of communicative intentions and the development of word-learning in infants. 

Key works

There are three edited volumes that contain many of the key texts in this area - Moore & Dunham 1995 Eilan et al 2005 and Seemann 2012. The first is predominantly written by psychologists, while the latter two include a mix of contributions by philosophers, neuroscientists and psychologists. Early discussions in philosophy relating to the topic of joint attention can be found in Husserl 1964, Schutz 1970,Schiffer 1972 and Davidson 1992. Early discussions in the developmental psychology literature can be found in Scaife and Bruner 1975 and Trevarthen 1979.


The introductions to Moore & Dunham 1995 Eilan et al 2005, and Seemann 2012 would provide the student with a good starting point on the topic. 

Related categories

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  1. Speaking Without Interpreting: A Reply to Bouma on Autism and Davidsonian Interpretation.Kristin Andrews & Ljiljana Radenovic - 2006 - Philosophical Psychology 19 (5):663 – 678.
    We clarify some points previously made by Andrews, and defend the claim that Davidson's account of belief can be and is challenged by the existence of some people with autism. We argue that both Bouma and Andrews (Philosophical Psychology, 15) blurred the subtle distinctions between the psychological concepts of theory of mind and joint attention and the Davidsonian concepts of interpretation and triangulation. And we accept that appeal to control group studies is not the appropriate place to look for an (...)
  2. Intersubjective Intentionality.Edward G. Armstrong - 1977 - Midwestern Journal of Philosophy 5:1-11.
  3. Joint Attention: New Developments.Seemann Axel (ed.) - 2012 - MIT Press.
  4. The Cartesian Residue in Intersubjectivity and Child Development.Michael D. Barber - 2012 - Schutzian Research 4:91-110.
    This paper argues that Husserl’s account of adult recognition of another allows for immediate, noninferential, analogical access to the other, though onedoes not experience the other’s experience as s/he does. The passive-associative processes at work in adult recognition of another make possible infant syncretic sociability and play a role in constituting the infant’s self prior to reflection. The reflective perspective of the psychologist and philosopher discovers that such infant experiences, though at first seeming indistinguishable from their parents’ experience, belong to (...)
  5. “Gaze Leading”: Initiating Simulated Joint Attention Influences Eye Movements and Choice Behavior.Andrew P. Bayliss, Emily Murphy, Claire K. Naughtin, Ada Kritikos, Leonhard Schilbach & Stefanie I. Becker - 2013 - Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 142 (1):76.
  6. From Joint Attention to Communicative Action Some Remarks on Critical Theory, Social Ontology and Cognitive Science.Matteo Bianchin - 2015 - Philosophy and Social Criticism 41 (6):593-608.
    In this article I consider the relevance of Tomasello’s work on social cognition to the theory of communicative action. I argue that some revisions are needed to cope with Tomasello’s results, but they do not affect the core of the theory. Moreover, they arguably reinforce both its explanatory power and the plausibility of its normative claims. I proceed in three steps. First, I compare and contrast Tomasello’s views on the ontogeny of human social cognition with the main tenets of Habermas’ (...)
  7. Simulation and the We-Mode. A Cognitive Account of Plural First Persons.Matteo Bianchin - 2015 - Philosophy of the Social Sciences 45 (4-5):442-461.
    In this article, I argue that a capacity for mindreading conceived along the line of simulation theory provides the cognitive basis for forming we-centric representations of actions and goals. This explains the plural first personal stance displayed by we-intentions in terms of the underlying cognitive processes performed by individual minds, while preserving the idea that they cannot be analyzed in terms of individual intentional states. The implication for social ontology is that this makes sense of the plural subjectivity of joint (...)
  8. We‐Experiences, Common Knowledge, and the Mode Approach to Collective Intentionality.Olle Blomberg - 2018 - Journal of Social Philosophy 49 (1):183-203.
    According to we-mode accounts of collective intentionality, an experience is a "we-experience"—that is, part of a jointly attentional episode—in virtue of the way or mode in which the content of the experience is given to the subject of experience. These accounts are supposed to explain how a we-experience can have the phenomenal character of being given to the subject "as ours" rather than merely "as my experience" (Zahavi 2015), and do so in a relatively conceptually and cognitively undemanding way. Galotti (...)
  9. Davidson's Transcendental Externalism.Jason Bridges - 2006 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 73 (2):290-315.
    One of the chief aims of Donald Davidson's later work was to show that participation in a certain causal nexus involving two creatures and a shared environment–Davidson calls this nexus “triangulation”–is a metaphysically necessary condition for the acquisition of thought. This doctrine, I suggest, is aptly regarded as a form of what I call transcendental externalism. I extract two arguments for the transcendental-externalist doctrine from Davidson's writings, and argue that neither succeeds. A central interpretive claim is that the arguments are (...)
  10. Critical Review of John Campbell: Reference and Consciousness. [REVIEW]Ingar Brinck - 2005 - Theoria 3:266-276.
  11. Attention and the Evolution of Intentional Communication.Ingar Brinck - 2001 - Pragmatics and Cognition 9 (2):259-277.
    Intentional communication is perceptually based and about attentional objects. Three attention mechanisms are distinguished: scanning, attention attraction, and attention-focusing. Attention-focusing directs the subject towards attentional objects. Attention-focusing is goal-governed (controlled by stimulus) or goal-intended (under the control of the subject). Attentional objects are perceptually categorised functional entities that emerge in the interaction between subjects and environment. Joint attention allows for focusing on the same attentional object simultaneously (mutual object-focused attention), provided that the subjects have focused on each other beforehand (subject-subject (...)
  12. Co–Operation and Communication in Apes and Humans.Ingar Brinck & Peter Gärdenfors - 2003 - Mind and Language 18 (5):484–501.
    We trace the difference between the ways in which apes and humans co–operate to differences in communicative abilities, claiming that the pressure for future–directed co–operation was a major force behind the evolution of language. Competitive co–operation concerns goals that are present in the environment and have stable values. It relies on either signalling or joint attention. Future–directed co–operation concerns new goals that lack fixed values. It requires symbolic communication and context–independent representations of means and goals. We analyse these ways of (...)
  13. Joint Attention, Triangulation and Radical Interpretation: A Problem and its Solution.Ingar Brink - 2004 - Dialectica 58 (2):179–206.
    By describing the aim of triangulation as locating the object of thoughts and utterances, Davidson has given it the double role of accounting for both the individuation of content and the sense in which content necessarily is public. The focus of this article is on how triangulation may contribute to the individuation of content. I maintain that triangulation may serve to break into the intentional circle of meaning and belief, yet without forcing us to renounce the claims concerning the interdependence (...)
  14. The Symposia Read at the Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society and the Mind Association at University of Aberdeen July 2008.Sarah Broadie (ed.) - 2008 - Aristotelian Society.
  15. Dharmakirti, Davidson, and Knowing Reality.Lajos Brons - 2013 - Comparative Philosophy 3 (1):30-57.
    If we distinguish phenomenal effects from their noumenal causes, the former being our conceptual(ized) experiences, the latter their grounds or causes in reality ‘as it is’ independent of our experience, then two contradictory positions with regards to the relationship between these two can be distinguished: either phenomena are identical with their noumenal causes, or they are not. Davidson is among the most influential modern defenders of the former position, metaphysical non-dualism. Dharmakīrti’s strict distinction between ultimate and conventional reality, on the (...)
  16. The Dewey Lectures 2007: Self and Self-Understanding.Tyler Burge - 2011 - Journal of Philosophy 108 (6-7).
  17. Joint Action and Knowing Others' Minds.Stephen Andrew Butterfill - unknown
  18. Pluralism About Joint Action.Stephen Andrew Butterfill - unknown
    Shared Emotions, Joint Attention and Joint Action, Centre for Functionally Integrative Neuroscience, Aarhus University, Denmark, 26 October 2010.
  19. Joint Visual Attention in Infancy.George Butterworth - 2004 - In Gavin Bremner & Alan Slater (eds.), Theories of Infant Development. Blackwell. pp. 317--354.
  20. Mead, Joint Attention, and the Human Difference. Cahoone - 2013 - The Pluralist 8 (2):1-25.
    The struggle between the parties bent on inflating humanity's self-conception and those bent on deflating it continues. Mind, consciousness, soul, reason, free will, language, culture, tool-use—all have been invoked as the unique character of the human, some deriving from Judeo-Christian religion, others from classical philosophy and modern anthropology. Opponents, sometimes motivated by ethical concerns about the treatment of animals, and buoyed by scientific advances in animal and especially primate studies, have either deconstructed these traits or ascribed them to nonhumans. Seeking (...)
  21. What Chimpanzees Know About Seeing, Revisited: An Explanation of the Third Kind.Josep Call & Michael Tomasello - 2005 - In Naomi Eilan, Christoph Hoerl, Teresa McCormack & Johannes Roessler (eds.), Joint Attention: Communication and Other Minds. Issues in Philosophy and Psychology. Oxford University Press. pp. 45--64.
    Chimpanzees follow the gaze of conspecifics and humans — follow it past distractors and behind barriers, ‘check back’ with humans when gaze following does not yield interesting sights, use gestures appropriately depending on the visual access of their recipient, and select different pieces of food depending on whether their competitor has visual access to them. Taken together, these findings make a strong case for the hypothesis that chimpanzees have some understanding of what other individuals can and cannot see. However, chimpanzees (...)
  22. Joint Attention and Simulation.J. Campbell - 2002 - In Jerome Dokic & Joelle Proust (eds.), Simulation and Knowledge of Action. John Benjamins. pp. 241-253 (with a reply by Elisabe.
  23. Reference and Consciousness.J. Campbell - 2002 - Oxford University Press.
    John Campbell investigates how consciousness of the world explains our ability to think about the world; how our ability to think about objects we can see depends on our capacity for conscious visual attention to those things. He illuminates classical problems about thought, reference, and experience by looking at the underlying psychological mechanisms on which conscious attention depends.
  24. An Object-Dependent Perspective on Joint Attention.John Campbell - forthcoming - In Axel Seemann (ed.), Joint Attention: New Developments in Philosophy, Psychology and Neuroscience. The MIT Press.
  25. Joint Attention and Common Knowledge.John Campbell - 2005 - In Naomi M. Eilan, Christoph Hoerl, Teresa McCormack & Johannes Roessler (eds.), Joint Attention: Communication and Other Minds: Issues in Philosophy and Psychology. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 287--297.
    This chapter makes the case for a relational version of an experientialist view of joint attention. On an experientialist view of joint attention, shifting from solitary attention to joint attention involves a shift in the nature of your perceptual experience of the object attended to. A relational analysis of such a view explains the latter shift in terms of the idea that, in joint attention, it is a constituent of your experience that the other person is, with you, jointly attending (...)
  26. Joint Attention and the First Person.John Campbell - 1998 - Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 43:123-136.
    It is sometimes said that ordinary linguistic exchange, in ordinary conversation, is a matter of securing and sustaining joint attention. The minimal condition for the success of the conversation is that the participants should be attending to the same things. So the psychologist Michael Tomasello writes, ‘I take it as axiomatic that when humans use language to communicate referentially they are attempting to manipulate the attention of another person or persons.’ I think that this is an extremely fertile approach to (...)
  27. Joint Attention and the First Person.John Campbell - 1998 - In Anthony O'Hear (ed.), Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement. Cambridge University Press. pp. 123-136..
    It is sometimes said that ordinary linguistic exchange, in ordinary conversation, is a matter of securing and sustaining joint attention. The minimal condition for the success of the conversation is that the participants should be attending to the same things. So the psychologist Michael Tomasello writes, ‘I take it as axiomatic that when humans use language to communicate referentially they are attempting to manipulate the attention of another person or persons.’ I think that this is an extremely fertile approach to (...)
  28. Socially Extending the Mind Through Social Affordances.Eros Moreira de Carvalho - forthcoming - In Steven Gouveia & Manuel Curado (eds.), Automata's Inner Movie: Science and Philosophy of Mind. Vernon Press.
    The extended mind thesis claims that at least some cognitive processes extend beyond the organism’s brain in that they are constituted by the organism’s actions on its surrounding environment. A more radical move would be to claim that social actions performed by the organism could at least constitute some of its mental processes. This can be called the socially extended mind thesis. Based on the notion of affordance as developed in the ecological psychology tradition, I defend the position that perception (...)
  29. Through the Agents' Minds: Cognitive Mediators of Social Action.Cristiano Castelfranchi - 2000 - Mind and Society 1 (1):109-140.
    Thesis: Macro-level social phenomena are implemented through the (social) actions and minds of the individuals. Without an explicit theory of the agents' minds that founds, agents' behavior we cannot understand macro-level social phenomena, and in particular how they work. AntiThesis: Mind is not enough: the theory of individual (social) mind and action is not enough to explain several macro-level social phenomena. First, there are pre-cognitive, objective social structures that constrain the actions of the agents; second, there are emergent, unaware or (...)
  30. Can the Shared Circuits Model (SCM) Explain Joint Attention or Perception of Discrete Emotions?Bhismadev Chakrabarti & Simon Baron-Cohen - 2008 - Behavioral and Brain Sciences 31 (1):24-25.
    The shared circuits model (SCM) is a bold attempt to explain how humans make sense of action, at different levels. In this commentary we single out five concerns: (1) the lack of a developmental account, (2) the absence of double-dissociation evidence, (3) the neglect of joint attention and joint action, (4) the inability to explain discrete emotion perception, and (5) the lack of predictive power or testability of the model. We conclude that Hurley's model requires further work before it could (...)
  31. Why is Joint Attention a Pivotal Skill in Autism? Charman - 2004 - In Uta Frith & Elisabeth Hill (eds.), Autism: Mind and Brain. Oxford University Press.
  32. Joint Attention to Music.Tom Cochrane - 2009 - British Journal of Aesthetics 49 (1):59-73.
    This paper contrasts individual and collective listening to music, with particular regard to the expressive qualities of music. In the first half of the paper a general model of joint attention is introduced. According to this model, perceiving together modifies the intrinsic structure of the perceptual task, and encourages a convergence of responses to a greater or lesser degree. The model is then applied to music, looking first at the silent listening situation typical to the classical concert hall, and second (...)
  33. Intersubjectivity: The Fabric of Social Becoming.Nick Crossley - 1996 - Sage Publications.
    Articulate and perceptive, Intersubjectivity is a text that explains the notions of intersubjectivity as a central concern of philosophy, sociology, psychology, and politics. Going beyond this broad-ranging introduction and explication, author Nick Crossley provides a critical discussion of intersubjectivity as an interdisciplinary concept to shed light on our understanding of selfhood, communication, citizenship, power, and community. The volume traces the contributions of key thinkers engaged within the intersubjectivist tradition, including Husserl, Buber, Kojeve, Merlau-Ponty, Mead, Wittgenstein, Schutz, and Habermas. A clear, (...)
  34. Perception, Causation, and Objectivity, Edited by Johannes Roessler, Hemdat Lerman, and Naomi Eilan.D. Danks - 2014 - Mind 123 (490):635-639.
  35. Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective.Donald Davidson - 1996 - In Philosophy. Bristol: Thoemmes. pp. 555-558.
    This is the long-awaited third volume of philosophical writings by Davidson, whose influence on philosophy since the 1960s has been deep and broad. His first two collections, published by Oxford in the early 1980s, are recognized as contemporary classics. His ideas have continued to flow; now, in this new work, he presents a selection of his best work on knowledge, mind, and language from the last two decades. It is a rich and rewarding feast for anyone interested in philosophy, and (...)
  36. Relevance and Mutual Knowledge.Martin Davies - 1987 - Behavioral and Brain Sciences 10 (4):716.
  37. Social Understanding Through Direct Perception? Yes, by Interacting.Hanne De Jaegher - 2009 - Consciousness and Cognition 18 (2):535-542.
    This paper comments on Gallagher’s recently published direct perception proposal about social cognition [Gallagher, S.. Direct perception in the intersubjective context. Consciousness and Cognition, 17, 535–543]. I show that direct perception is in danger of being appropriated by the very cognitivist accounts criticised by Gallagher. Then I argue that the experiential directness of perception in social situations can be understood only in the context of the role of the interaction process in social cognition. I elaborate on the role of social (...)
  38. Can Social Interaction Constitute Social Cognition?Hanne De Jaegher, Ezequiel Di Paolo & Shaun Gallagher - 2010 - Trends in Cognitive Sciences 14 (10):441-447.
    An important shift is taking place in social cognition research, away from a focus on the individual mind and toward embodied and participatory aspects of social understanding. Empirical results already imply that social cognition is not reducible to the workings of individual cognitive mechanisms. To galvanize this interactive turn, we provide an operational definition of social interaction and distinguish the different explanatory roles – contextual, enabling and constitutive – it can play in social cognition. We show that interactive processes are (...)
  39. Delighting in Natural Beauty: Joint Attention and the Phenomenology of Nature Aesthetics.Johan De Smedt & Helen De Cruz - 2013 - European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 5 (4):167-186.
    Empirical research in the psychology of nature appreciation suggests that humans across cultures tend to evaluate nature in positive aesthetic terms, including a sense of beauty and awe. They also frequently engage in joint attention with other persons, whereby they are jointly aware of sharing attention to the same event or object. This paper examines how, from a natural theological perspective, delight in natural beauty can be conceptualized as a way of joining attention to creation. Drawing on an analogy between (...)
  40. Joint Ventures Require Joint Payoffs: Fairness Among Primates.Frans Bm de Waal - 2006 - Social Research: An International Quarterly 73 (2):349-364.
    Cooperative animals often find themselves in situations in which they need to monitor and compare pay-offs received from joint ventures. They can compare their pay-offs with a) the history of giving to and receiving from the same partner , b) the effort they put into the venture , or c) what others are getting . There is ample observational evidence that monkeys and apes follow rules of social reciprocity. There is also evidence for market effects of supply and demand . (...)
  41. Verbal Behaviour Development for Children with Autism.Francesca Degli Espinosa - unknown
    The utility of functional accounts of language development in establishing the emergence of generalised verbal behaviour in children with autism was evaluated through a programme of research that also investigated ways in which interactions between speaker and listener behaviour can be manipulated to maximise the effectiveness of language-based interventions. Firstly, the Early Behavioural Intervention Curriculum was developed as a comprehensive framework for delivering Early Intensive Behavioural Intervention to children with autism. Secondly, the effectiveness of the EBIC was evaluated through analysis (...)
  42. Demonstratives, Joint Attention, and the Emergence of Grammar.Holger Diessel - 2006 - Cognitive Linguistics 17 (4).
  43. Situation Alignment and Routinization in Language Acquisition.Peter F. Dominey - 2004 - Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27 (2):195-195.
    Pickering & Garrod (P&G) describe a mechanism by which the situation models of dialog participants become progressively aligned via priming at different levels. This commentary attempts to characterize how alignment and routinization can be extended into the language acquisition domain by establishing links between alignment and joint attention, and between routinization and grammatical construction learning.
  44. Joint Attention: New Developments in Psychology, Philosophy of Mind, and Social Neuroscience by Axel Seemann.James M. Dow - 2013 - Humana Mente 6 (24).
  45. The Joint Development of Hemispheric Lateralization for Words and Faces.Eva M. Dundas, David C. Plaut & Marlene Behrmann - 2013 - Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 142 (2):348.
  46. Consciousness, Self-Consciousness and Communication.Naomi Eilan - 2007 - In Thomas Baldwin (ed.), Reading Merleau-Ponty: On Phenomenology of Perception. Routledge.
  47. Joint Attention, Communication, and Mind.Naomi M. Eilan - 2005 - In N. Elian, Christoph Hoerl, Teresa McCormack & Johannes Roessler (eds.), Joint Attention: Communication and Other Minds. Oxford University Press. pp. 1.
    This chapter argues that a central division among accounts of joint attention, both in philosophy and developmental psychology, turns on how they address two questions: What, if any, is the connection between the capacity to engage in joint attention triangles and the capacity to grasp the idea of objective truth? How do we explain the kind of openness or sharing of minds that occurs in joint attention? The chapter explores the connections between answers to both questions, and argues that theories (...)
  48. Joint Attention: Communication and Other Minds: Issues in Philosophy and Psychology.Naomi Eilan, Christoph Hoerl, Teresa McCormack & Johannes Roessler (eds.) - 2005 - Oxford: Clarendon Press.
    Sometime around their first birthday most infants begin to engage in relatively sustained bouts of attending together with their caretakers to objects in their environment. By the age of 18 months, on most accounts, they are engaging in full-blown episodes of joint attention. As developmental psychologists (usually) use the term, for such joint attention to be in play, it is not sufficient that the infant and the adult are in fact attending to the same object, nor that the one’s attention (...)
  49. Joint Attention in Joint Action.Anika Fiebich & Shaun Gallagher - 2013 - Philosophical Psychology 26 (4):571-87.
    In this paper, we investigate the role of intention and joint attention in joint actions. Depending on the shared intentions the agents have, we distinguish between joint path-goal actions and joint final-goal actions. We propose an instrumental account of basic joint action analogous to a concept of basic action and argue that intentional joint attention is a basic joint action. Furthermore, we discuss the functional role of intentional joint attention for successful cooperation in complex joint actions. Anika Fiebich is PhD (...)
  50. Nonseparability of Shared Intentionality.Mr Christian Flender, Dr Kirsty Kitto & Prof Peter Bruza - unknown
    According to recent studies in developmental psychology and neuroscience, symbolic language is essentially intersubjective. Empathetically relating to others renders possible the acquisition of linguistic constructs. Intersubjectivity develops in early ontogenetic life when interactions between mother and infant mutually shape their relatedness. Empirical findings suggest that the shared attention and intention involved in those interactions is sustained as it becomes internalized and embodied. Symbolic language is derivative and emerges from shared intentionality. In this paper, we present a formalization of shared intentionality (...)
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