Are speakers just unaware of the possibility for confusion? Are they deliberately trying to be uncooperative? Are they just lazy?
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh recently attempted to answer these questions. In their experiment, Sarah L. Haywood, Martin J. Pickering, and Holly P. Branigan employed a visual game that involved role swapping in order to determine whether a speaker's choice of words in dialogue indicates a desire for ease of production, ease of comprehension, or both.
Their findings are presented in "Do Speakers Avoid Ambiguities During Dialogue" in the May 2005 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society.
Participants in the Edinburgh experiment were paired with a scripted confederate and played a game in which they alternated giving and following instructions to move objects around on a board. Some of the instructions given by the confederate were ambiguous (e.g. "Put the pig on the block on the heart") and offered more than one possibility given the arrangement of objects; some were unambiguous statements (e.g. "Put the pig that's on the block on the heart") with only one possible interpretation.
The researchers found that acting as the listener of sometimes ambiguous instructions seemed to make participants aware of the consequences of speaking ambiguously. "We found that their utterances reflected a sensitivity to ambiguity," the researchers wrote. "Speakers used optional disambiguating words (like that's) more often when the array of objects would cause confusion for the listener."
They concluded that speaker's utterances do, in fact, reflect both the ease of production and ease of comprehension. "Speakers can take account of their listeners' ease of comprehension, under the right circumstances," they wrote.
For more information, contact Sarah Haywood at Sarah.Haywood@ed.ac.uk. Download the article at http://www.psychologicalscience.org/media/releases/2005/pr050805.cfm.
Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. The American Psychological Society represents psychologists advocating science-based research in the public's interest.