Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Making Sense of Abstract Events: Building Event Schemas

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Making Sense of Abstract Events: Building Event Schemas

Article excerpt

Everyday events, such as making a bed, can be segmented hierarchically, with the coarse level characterized by changes in the actor's goals and the fine level by subgoals (Zacks, Tversky, & Iyer, 2001). Does hierarchical event perception depend on knowledge of actors' intentions? This question was addressed by asking participants to segment films of abstract, schematic events. Films were novel or familiarized, viewed forward or backward, and simultaneously described or not. The participants interpreted familiar films as more intentional than novel films and forward films as more intentional than backward films. Regardless of experience and film direction, however, the participants identified similar event boundaries and organized them hierarchically. An analysis of the movements in each frame revealed that event segments corresponded to bursts of change in movement features, with greater bursts for coarse than for fine units. Perceiving event structure appears to enable event schemas, rather than resulting from them.

When people view a bustling city street, they perceive individual objects: cars, stoplights, and other people. When those objects move, people perceive individual events. Events come in many varieties; they can involve animate and inanimate entities, short and long periods of time. But much of what we perceive in everyday life are behavioral events, or goal-directed activities involving people: a person buying a hot dog from a street vendor, or a driver turning at an intersection. People thus make sense of their experiences by extracting meaning from a continuous flow of information.

Despite the inherently dynamic nature of events, perception of objects and events share many characteristics. Like objects, events are selected and segmented from ongoing information. In other words, they are perceived as discrete, as individually distinct and bounded, with beginnings and ends (e.g., Casati & Varzi, 1996; Newtson & Engquist, 1976; Zacks, Tversky, & Iyer, 2001). Like objects, events are also conceived as having hierarchical structure, as being composed of parts, or subevents. Buying a hot dog, for example, consists of placing an order, paying the vendor, and receiving the tasty treat. Relative to the perception of objects, however, the perception of events and their structure is not well understood. How is it accomplished?

One approach to this question has been to examine people's explicit knowledge, or schemas, for common events. This approach has confirmed that when people list event constituents, they organize them in partonomic, or whole-part, hierarchies (e.g., Abbott, Black, & Smith, 1985; Bower, Black, & Turner, 1979). These hierarchical organizations generally correspond to the goals and subgoals of the event, as in the example of buying a hot dog.

A complementary approach has been to study how event structure is detected online. In this approach, participant observers are asked to segment the living stream of behavior (Barker, 1963) or films of it (Newtson, 1973) into natural units. Although there is inevitable variability in how observers segment behavior into events, they are remarkably consistent; they agree with each other on the locations of unit boundaries, called breakpoints (Dickman, 1963; Newtson & Engquist, 1976; Zacks et al., 2001).

Observers segmenting ongoing events also organize them hierarchically, consistent with explicit event knowledge. In one set of studies that demonstrated this, observers viewed and segmented everyday events, such as making a bed or doing the dishes, into large and small units (Zacks et al., 2001). Some observers gave a verbal play-by-play as they segmented, allowing analysis of their explicit interpretations of the events. Analysis of segmentation patterns showed that the breakpoints of larger units aligned with those of smaller units. This hierarchical alignment effect suggested that the events were perceived as partonomic hierarchies. …

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