Field of Science

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.


Anonymous said...

Hi Joshua,

I may have found a bug in the "Mind Reading" survey.

When I got to the section about ranking the politeness of asking for directions, I couldn't find a button to progress after I made my rankings.

On the previous pages I could barely see the top edge of the Continue button on the bottom of the screen, but I didn't have a scroll bar available and I couldn't scroll the page using my mouse or the arrow keys.

I'm running Firefox 3.6.13 on a Macbook with OS 10.6.6.

Hope that helps,

Steve Barr
New Zealand

GamesWithWords said...

I appreciate you alerting me. The kind of bug you are referring to is a bug with Adobe Flash or your browser, not with the program itself. I have colleagues who use Javascript instead, but they also run into similar issues. It seems like this kind of bug affects around 1% of participants, though it's hard to know because they don't usually tell me!

If this comes up for anybody, my suggestion is that you try changing the size of your browser window. When I test locally on my system, this sometimes comes up and that solves the problem. I have never heard of this happening within a browser before, though.

Has anyone else seen this?

outerhoard said...

Note: The first link to the study is broken. But the second one, at the end of the post, is correct.

I didn't do the whole experiment because, honestly, it made me feel uncomfortable. I think this is because I'm not accustomed to thinking or caring much about what the average person thinks, and find it embarrassing to be seen speculating.

GamesWithWords said...

@outerhoard: Odd, I thought I checked that link. Fixed now.

Just a reminder, though, that the experiment is anonymous, so nobody is going to "see" you speculating. You would, however, find out how good you are at speculating, which might be better than you think.

GamesWithWords said...

Sorry @Anonymous. I deleted your post because you referred to the details of the experiment. I prefer to keep details relevant to the hypothesis to a minimum while an experiment is ongoing.

Though one detail that was OK was saying that you wish there had been a way -- in the part of the experiment that required you to rank order sentences -- if one could have just pressed a button to move things up and down...

...and I was so proud of how the experiment *did* work! The programming was not trivial and a vast improvement over what I normally do (I'm not a programmer by training or temperament). But it's a good idea, and I think now that I've worked out the code for the method that I did use, I can implement your idea on future versions.

Anonymous said...

I had to drop your expt because I'd just read Herb Clark's article on request politeness. So sad.