Field of Science

Blogger Spam Filter: Not Totally Useless

For the first time ever, Google/Blogger's spam filter actually caught a spam comment. Usually, it lets the spam go right through unmolested and only traps legitimate comments.

We can hope this is the start of a trend.

Overheard: Converting common knowledge into scientific knowledge

Because they are so familiar, it is easy to assume that category labels drawn from everyday language are self-evidently the correct way to describe emotion. However, transforming everyday categorical descriptions into an effective research tool is at the least a challenge.

Cowie & Cornelius (2003) Describing the emotional states that are expressed in speech. Speech Communication 40, 5-32.

New experiment: Mind Reading Quotient

Language requires a lot of inference. Consider the following three conversations:

A: Are there lots of people at the party?
B: Well, most people have left already.

A: How long has the party been going on?
B: Well, most people have left already.

A: Is it a good party?
B: Well, most people have left already.

In each of these cases, B's statement literally means the same thing, but the interpretation is different. Explaining (a) why this should be the case, and (b) how people figure out the implicit meanings is a very active area of research in modern linguistics and psycholinguistics.

The Mind Reading Quotient

Basically, understanding conversations like the ones above seem to require a certain amount of "mind reading" -- that is, guessing what the speaker (B, in this case) means to say. If you've ever wondered "what did she mean by that?" you were engaged in this kind of mind reading.

I just posted a new experiment -- the Mind Reading Quotient -- which consist of several short tests of this kind of mind reading ability. A couple of the tests look specifically at trying to work out what somebody is saying. A couple of the tests look at similar skills in the non-linguistic domain.

My favorite of the non-linguistic tasks is a coordination game. Thomas Schelling won a Nobel Prize in part for pioneering work on the topic. He found that people are very good at guessing what another person is thinking under certain conditions. For instance, if you tell two people they must meet up in New York City -- but without communicating with each other in any way -- they are actually fairly likely to succeed. Most likely, they would both show up on the corner of Times Square (or in one of a very small number of likely locations). The Mind Reading Quotient includes several such problems.

The goal of this study in part is to get a sense of how good people are at such tasks. There are a lot of thought experiments out there, but not nearly enough data. I will also be looking to see if people who are better at one of these tasks are also better at the others -- that is, is there a single underlying "mind reading ability," or does each task require a separate set of skills?

Reports so far are that the experiment runs 20-25 minutes. Because this is broken up into 7 separate activities, it should seem faster than that. And a lot of the tasks are fun (at least, I think so). Plus, at the end of the experiment, you'll be able to see your scores on many of the different sub-tasks. In two cases (a vocabulary test and an empathy test), I also have percentile scores already worked out, so you can see how you compare to average.

Follow this link to the study.

For previous posts about pragmatics and other linguistic inferences, check out this one, this one and this one.

image CC by Ignacio Conejo.

Missing Words

My dictionary lists several Chinese words for disdain, but none for discourage. The government in Orwell's 1984 would have loved this, as they -- along with many contemporary writers (I'm talking about you, Bill Bryson) -- believed that you don't have a word for something you can't think about it. I guess China has no need for the motivational speaker industry.
You can't be discouraged if you don't have a word for it.

Unfortunately for the government of Oceania, there's very little evidence this is true. The availability of certain words in a language may have effects on memory or speeded recognition, but probably does nothing so drastic as making certain thoughts inaccessible. I think examples like the one above make it clear just how unlikely the hypothesis was to be true to begin with.

photo credit here.

New Experiment: Drama Queen

The latest experiment in my quest to understand how people use emotion verbs is now posted. You will be introduced to a character who is, as the name of the game implies, a drama queen. She has many fraught relationships with her friends. You will be introduced to a number of friends, how Susan feels about each friend, and a new verb that you will try to use to describe that relationship. Enjoy.

Love, Marriage & Race

People who have been following this blog know that birth order affects who you are friends with and who you marry. Here's some comprehensive evidence on race. It probably won't come as a surprise, but it's nice to have numbers.