Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Pinker et al. on the logic of indirect speech.

Pinker, Nowak, and Lee do an interesting perspectives article in PNAS that looks more rigorously at why we don't just blurt out what we mean, as in:
- Would you like to come up and see my etchings? [a sexual come-on]
- If you could pass the guacamole, that would be awesome. [a polite request]
- Nice store you got there. Would be a real shame if something happened to it. [a threat]
- We're counting on you to show leadership in our Campaign for the Future. [a solicitation for a donation]
- Gee, officer, is there some way we could take care of the ticket here? [a bribe]
Here is their abstract:
When people speak, they often insinuate their intent indirectly rather than stating it as a bald proposition. Examples include sexual come-ons, veiled threats, polite requests, and concealed bribes. We propose a three-part theory of indirect speech, based on the idea that human communication involves a mixture of cooperation and conflict. First, indirect requests allow for plausible deniability, in which a cooperative listener can accept the request, but an uncooperative one cannot react adversarially to it. This intuition is supported by a game-theoretic model that predicts the costs and benefits to a speaker of direct and indirect requests. Second, language has two functions: to convey information and to negotiate the type of relationship holding between speaker and hearer (in particular, dominance, communality, or reciprocity). The emotional costs of a mismatch in the assumed relationship type can create a need for plausible deniability and, thereby, select for indirectness even when there are no tangible costs. Third, people perceive language as a digital medium, which allows a sentence to generate common knowledge, to propagate a message with high fidelity, and to serve as a reference point in coordination games. This feature makes an indirect request qualitatively different from a direct one even when the speaker and listener can infer each other's intentions with high confidence.

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