Field of Science

Overnight data on lying and bragging

Many thanks to all those who responded to my call for data last week. By midnight, I had enough data to be confident of the results, and the results were beautiful. I would have posted about them here on Friday, but in the lead-up to this presentation, I did so much typing I burned out my wrists and have been taking a much-needed computer break.

The study looked at the interpretation of the word some. Under some conditions, people interpret some as meaning some but not all, but other times, it means simply not none. For instance compared John did some of his homework with If you eat some of your green beans, you can have dessert. Changing some to some-but-not-all doesn't change the meaning of the first sentence, but (for most people) changes the interpretation of the second.

This phenomenon, called "scalar implicature" is one of the hottest topics in pragmatics -- a subdivision of linguistic study. The reasons for this are complex -- partly it's because Ira Noveck and his colleagues turned out a series of fascinating studies capturing a lot of people's attention. Partly it's because scalar implicature is a relatively easily-studied test case for several prominent theories. Partly it's other reasons.

Shades of meaning

On most theories, there are a few reasons some might be interpreted as some-but-not-all or not. The usual intuition is that part of why we assume John did some of his homework means some-but-not-all is because if it were true that John did all of his homework, the speaker would have just said so ... unless, of course, the speaker doesn't know if John did all his homework or if the speaker does know but have a good reason to obfuscate.

At least, that's what many theorists assume, but proving it has been hard. Last year, Bonnefon, Feeney & Villejoubert published a nice study showing that people are less likely to interpret some as some-but-not-all in so-called "face-threatening" contexts -- that is, when the speaker is being polite. For instance, suppose you are a poet and you send 10 poems to a friend to read. Then you ask the friend what she thinks, and she says, "Some of the poems need work." In this case, many people suspect that the friend actually means all of the poems need work, but is being polite.

The study

In this quick study, I wanted to replicate and build on Bonnefon et al's work. The experiment was simple. People read short statements and then answered a question about each one. The first two statement/question pairs were catch trials -- trials with simple questions and obvious answers. The small number of participants who got those wrong were excluded (presumably, they misunderstood the instructions or simply weren't paying attention).

The critical trial was the final one. Here's an example:
Sally: 'John daxed some of the blickets.'
'Daxing' is a neutral activity, neither good nor bad.
Based on what Sally said, how likely is it that John daxed ALL the blickets?
As you can see, the sentence contained unknown words ('daxing', 'blickets'), and participants were presented with a partial definition of one of them (that daxing is a neutral activity). The reason to do this was that it allowed us to manipulate the context carefully.

Each participant was in one of six conditions. Either Sally said "John daxed some...," as in the example above, or she said "I daxed some..." Also, "daxing" was described as either a neutral activity, as in the example above, or a negative activity (something to be ashamed of), or a positive activity (something to be proud of).


As shown in the graph, whether daxing was described as positive, negative or neutral affected whether participants thought all the blickets were daxed (e,g, that some meant at least some rather than some-but-not-all) when Sally was talking about her own actions ("I daxed some of the blickets").

This makes sense, if 'daxing' is something to be proud of, then if Sally daxed all of the blickets, she'd say so. Since she didn't, people assume she daxed only some of them (far right blue bar in graph). Whereas if daxing is something to be ashamed of, then even if she daxed all of them, she might prefer to say "I daxed some of the blickets" as a way of obfuscating -- it's technically true, but misleading.

Interestingly, this effect didn't show up if Sally was talking about John daxing blickets. Presumably this is because people think the motivation to brag or lie is less strong when talking about a third person.

Also  interestingly, people weren't overall more likely to interpret some as meaning some-but-not-all when the sentence was in the first-person ("I daxed..."), which I had predicted to be the case. As described above, many theories assume that some should only be interpreted as some-but-not-all if we are sure the speaker knows whether or not all holds. We should be more sure when the speaker is talking about her own actions than someone else's. But I didn't find any such affect. This could be because the theory is wrong, because the effect of using first-person vs. third-person is very weak, or because participants were at floor already (most people in all 6 conditions thought it was very unlikely that all the blickets were daxed, which can make it hard detect an effect -- though it didn't prevent us from finding the effect of the meaning of 'daxing').


I presented these data at a workshop on scalar implicature that I organized last Thursday. It was just one experiment of several dozen included in that talk, but it was the one that seemed to have generated the most interest. Thanks once again to all those who participated.

Bonnefon, J., Feeney, A., & Villejoubert, G. (2009). When some is actually all: Scalar inferences in face-threatening contexts Cognition, 112 (2), 249-258 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2009.05.005


Anonymous said...

Why would I want desert any way? I'd much rather have dessert.

GamesWithWords said...

Fair enough. Fixed.