Department of Psychology
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The role of uncertainty during reference making
People use language to accomplish things together. To succeed, they must continuously coordinate their actions, including what the speaker means when producing their utterance and what their addressee takes them to mean. Coordination is a complex process because there is no systematic relationship between an utterance and what the speaker means by it. How do speakers choose to formulate their intention and how do their addressees succeed in reaching the same construal?
Much of the research on the coordination problem has concerned referential communication. In order to make a definite reference, a speaker must choose an expression that maximizes the probability that their addressee will identify the entity the speaker refers to, but success is not guaranteed. Here, I will argue that in unscripted conversations, partners can work together to successfully establish reference. In particular, a speaker can assess and (implicitly) signal their degree of confidence. Conveying uncertainty acts as a request for their addressee to display evidence of their understanding for the speaker to evaluate, which maximizes the chance of detecting misunderstanding. If, on the other hand, the speaker feels confident they will be understood, the process can be expedited, with the addressee merely asserting or presupposing understanding. Thus, conversational partners may expand more or less effort in establishing that they understood each other as a function of internal uncertainty. In my presentation, I will motivate this thesis and provide supporting evidence from analyses of unscripted conversations of individuals engaged in goal-oriented tasks.