Jim just started playing this year for his school’s junior varsity lacrosse team. As a beginner, he doesn’t see a lot of action, but it’s nonetheless exciting to watch the games — they are fast-paced, with plenty of scoring and a few hard hits. Most junior varsity teams don’t have the equipment budget of a varsity team, so they don’t have separate home and away uniforms like varsity teams do. This means game officials have a hard time remembering which team is which, so instead of referring to players as “home” or “away,” they use the color of the uniforms to distinguish between teams. Apparently “maroon” isn’t in a referee’s vocabulary, because they never use that word to refer to Jim’s school’s burgundy apparel. Instead, they just say “red.”
This got some of us parents to thinking. What if our school played a school with truly red uniforms? Since that team is clearly “red,” would someone have to explain to the officials the concept of “maroon”? A few days ago, we found out — during a game against a team with bright-red uniforms, our school was called “black” (the uniforms do actually have a black stripe on them — I’d never noticed before). But I still hesitated a bit whenever the officials called a penalty against “red” — I’d grown accustomed to thinking of “red” as our team.
When you think about language, very few items are actually referred to in the same way by everyone, all the time. Sometimes I call my car a “car,” sometimes it’s my “station wagon,” sometimes it’s a “VW,” and sometimes it’s a “lousy pile of $#@#!” But what if I’m sending Jim into the garage to get something from the car and I need to make sure he checks the right one (we have both a Volkswagen and a Plymouth)? How does he know which car I mean? He probably remembers that I usually call the VW the “car” and the Plymouth a “van.” But what mechanism is he using to remember that?
Over the past few decades, two competing explanations have emerged. One explanation, introduced in 1975 by P.H. Grice, suggests that Jim knows I’m cooperating with him: he’s aware that I want to communicate the specific car, and so relies on his memory of that fact. He might even be aware that I call the van the “old car” when talking to Greta, but knows that I don’t use that word with him (since he is too young to remember when we bought the van). A newer explanation, suggested by S.E. Brennan and H.H. Clark, argues that Jim isn’t assuming cooperation at all; he merely expects speakers to be consistent in the terms they use. Hadas Shintel and Boaz Keysar believe they have designed an experiment which distinguishes between the two explanations.
Shintel and Keysar bring two people into a room with a shelf divided into 16 cubbies, with 7 objects placed randomly in the cubbies. One person is the “director” and the other is the participant. The director tells the participant to move objects around. The key to the experiment is that the director is following a careful script, unknown to the participant, who believes the director to be another paid study participant. The participant is equipped with a head-mounted video camera and eye-tracking device, so the direction of his gaze can be precisely determined at each point during the study.
Before the study begins, the participant watches a “training” video showing the director giving instructions like “move the elephant rattle to the left” to another participant. Half the time, the participant is told not to let the director know he saw her in the video, and that the study is about how effectively the director can communicate. The other half the time, the director and the participant watch the training video together.
Then when the actual experiment begins, the director systematically describes some of the objects from the video using a different name. For example, the “elephant rattle” in the video is referred to as the “baby rattle.” The question is, when the participant thinks the director doesn’t know he watched the video, does his reaction time change? Here are the results:
The graph charts the time from when the director said the name of the object to the time the participant first looked at the object. If the cooperation hypothesis proposed by Grice is true, then when the participant thinks the director knows he saw the video, the participant should be slower to react when the director uses a new name for the object. But when he thinks she doesn’t know he saw the video, he shouldn’t take any longer to respond to a new name. In fact, participants were slower in both cases, and the biggest difference occurred in the “director does not know” condition — the opposite of what Grice’s explanation predicts.
Thus, Shintel and Keysar argue, the simpler explanation must be what’s occurring in this situation: we expect a speaker to be consistent in the terminology she uses to describe objects, and when she’s not consistent, it takes us longer to process her utterances.
But of course, language is very complex, and so are the social circumstances surrounding its use. We’re not surprised when a speaker refers to a “flat” when speaking to a Londoner but an “apartment” when speaking to a New Yorker. There are many situations when we expect speakers to use different vocabulary to refer to the same items. Yet this work shows that when everything else is controlled, consistency is expected more than cooperation is.
That said, would it kill our lacrosse refs to learn the color “maroon”?
Shintel, H., & Keysar, B. (2007). You said it before and you’ll say it again: Expectations of consistency in communication. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 33(2), 357-369.