One of our aims in this paper is to show that building an adequate theory of communication involves going beyond Grice’s notion of speaker’s meaning. Another is to provide a conceptually unified explanation of how a wider variety of communicative acts than Grice was concerned with – including both cases of ‘showing that’ and ‘telling that’ – are understood. (This is a draft – Please do not quote!)
Abstract: Little is known about the spread of emotions beyond dyads. Yet, it is of importance for explaining the emergence of crowd behaviors. Here, we experimentally addressed whether emotional homogeneity within a crowd might result from a cascade of local emotional transmissions where the perception of another’s emotional expression produces, in the observer’s face and body, sufficient information to allow for the transmission of the emotion to a third party. … [Our] findings demonstrate that one is tuned to react to others’ emotional signals and to unintentionally produce subtle but sufficient emotional cues to induce emotional states in others…
Abstract: In “The evolution of testimony: Receiver vigilance, speaker honesty, and the reliability of communication,” Kourken Michaelian questions the basic tenets of our article “Epistemic vigilance” (Sperber et al. 2010). Here I defend against Michaelian’s criticisms the view that epistemic vigilance plays a major role in explaining the evolutionary stability of communication and that the honesty of speakers and the reliability of their testimony are, to a large extent, an effect of hearers’ vigilance.
Abstract: What makes humans moral beings? This question can be understood either as a proximate ‘how’ question or as an ultimate ‘why’ question. The ‘how’ question is about the mental and social mechanisms that produce moral judgments and interactions, and has been investigated by psychologists and social scientists. The ‘why’ question is about the fitness consequences that explain why humans have morality, and has been discussed by evolutionary biologists in the context of the evolution of cooperation. Our goal here is to contribute to a fruitful articulation of such proximate and ultimate explanations of human morality. We do so by developing an approach focusing on recent developments in the study of mutualistic forms of cooperation and on their relevance to fairness-based morality.
Abstract: From an evolutionary point of view, the function of moral behaviour may be to secure a good reputation as a co-operator. The best way to do so may be to obey genuine moral motivations. Still, one’s moral reputation maybe something too important to be entrusted just to one’s moral sense. A robust concern for one’s reputation is likely to have evolved too. Here we explore some of the complex relationships between morality and reputation both from an evolutionary and a cognitive point of view.
“…We argue that the function of reasoning is primarily social and that it is the individual benefits that are side-effects. The function of reasoning is to produce arguments in order to convince others and to evaluate arguments others use in order to convince us. We will show how this view of reasoning as a form of social competence correctly predicts both good and bad performance in the individual and in the collective case, and helps explain a variety of psychological and sociological phenomena…”
A new essay on irony, chapter 6 in Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber (2012) Meaning and Relevance, pp. 123-145.
Short commentary on: Asher Koriat (2012) When Are Two Heads Better than One and Why? Science 336, 360 (2012);
“.. I argue that “1) A naturalisation of the domain of the social sciences is made possible by the ongoing naturalisation of psychology. 2) The ontology of a naturalised social science is a composite ontology, articulating naturalistic description of mental and environmental events. 3) Precisely because, on this view, naturalised social sciences borrow the ingredients of their ontology from several different disciplines, their concepts and theories cannot be reduced to the concepts or theories of any one of these disciplines. 4) The way in which naturalised social sciences renounce ontological autonomy secures their theoretical autonomy. In other terms, I am arguing for an ontological reduction without theoretical reduction…”
Abstract: Reasoning is generally seen as a mean to improve knowledge and make better decisions. Much evidence, however, shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests rethinking the function of reasoning. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given human exceptional dependence on communication and vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology or reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis.
Abstract: Humans depend massively on communication with others, but this leaves them open to the risk of being accidentally or intentionally misinformed. We claim that humans have a suite of cognitive mechanisms for epistemic vigilance to ensure that communication remains advantageous despite this risk. Here we outline this claim and consider some of the ways in which epistemic vigilance works in mental and social life by surveying issues, research and theories in different domains of philosophy, linguistics, cognitive psychology and the social sciences.
Abstract: Social learning mechanisms are usually assumed to explain both the spread and the persistence of cultural behaviour. In a recent article, we showed that the fidelity of social learning commonly found in transmission chain experiments is not high enough to explain cultural stability. Here we want to both enrich and qualify this conclusion by looking at the case of song transmission in song birds, which can be faithful to the point of being true replication. We argue that this high fidelity results from natural selection pressure on cognitive mechanisms. This observation strengthens our main argument. Social learning mechanisms are unlikely to be faithful enough to explain cultural stability because they are generally selected not for high fidelity but for generalisation and adjustment to the individual’s needs, capacities and situation.
Abstract: We propose a principled distinction between two types of inferences: ‘intuitive inference’ and ‘reflective inference’ (or reasoning proper). We ground this distinction in a massively modular view of the human mind where metarepresentational modules play an important role in explaining the peculiarities of human psychological evolution. We defend the hypothesis that the main function of reflective inference is to produce and evaluate arguments occurring in interpersonal communication (rather than to help individual ratiocination). This function, we claim, helps explain important aspects of reasoning. We review some of the existing evidence and argue that it gives support to this approach.
Abstract: Vigilance towards deception is investigated in 3- to-5-year-old children: (i) In study 1, children as young as 3 years of age prefer the testimony of a benevolent rather than of a malevolent communicator. (ii) In study 2, only at the age of four do children show understanding of the falsity of a lie uttered by a communicator described as a liar. (iii) In study 3, the ability to recognize a lie when the communicator is described as intending to deceive the child emerges around four and improves throughout the fifth and sixth year of life. On the basis of this evidence, we suggest that preference for the testimony of a benevolent communicator, understanding of the epistemic aspects of deception, and understanding of its intentional aspects are three functionally and developmentally distinct components of epistemic vigilance.
Abstract: Most human beliefs are acquired through communication, and so are most misbeliefs. Just like the misbeliefs discussed by McKay & Dennett (M&D), culturally transmitted misbeliefs tend to result from limitations rather than malfunctions of the mechanisms that produce them, and few if any can be argued to be adaptations. However, the mechanisms involved, the contents, and the hypothetical adaptive value tend to be specific to the cultural case.
Abstract: On the relevance-theoretic approach outlined in this paper, linguistic metaphors are not a natural kind, and “metaphor” is not a theoretically important notion in the study of verbal communication. Metaphorical interpretations are arrived at in exactly the same way as literal, loose and hyperbolic interpretations: there is no mechanism specific to metaphors, and no interesting generalisation that applies only to them. In this paper, we defend this approach in detail by showing how the same inferential procedure applies to utterances at both ends of the literal-loose-metaphorical continuum, and how both literal and metaphorical utterances may create poetic effects
Abstract: This work examines how people interpret the sentential connective “or”, which can be viewed either inclusively (A or B or both) or exclusively (A or B but not both). Drawing on prior work concerning quantifiers (Noveck, 2001; Noveck & Posada, 2003; Bott & Noveck, 2004) and following a relevance-theoretic line of argument, we hypothesized that conditions encouraging more processing effort would give rise to more pragmatic inferences and hence to more exclusive interpretations of the disjunction. This prediction was confirmed in three experiments.
Version française de: An Evolutionary perspective on testimony and argumentation. Philosophical Topics. (2001). 29. 401-413
Abstract: In two experiments, we investigated whether 13-month-old infants expect agents to behave in a way consistent with information to which they have been exposed. Infants watched animations in which an animal was either provided information or prevented from gathering information about the actual location of an object. The animal then searched successfully or failed to retrieve it. Infants’ looking times suggest that they expected searches to be effective when—and only when—the agent had had access to the relevant information. This result supports the view that infants’ possess an incipient metarepresentational ability that permits them to attribute beliefs to agents. We discuss the viability of more conservative explanations and the relationship between this early ability and later forms of ‘theory of mind’ that appear only after children have become experienced verbal communicators.
“Although a few pioneers in psycholinguistics had, for more than twenty years, approached various pragmatic issues experimentally, it is only in the past few years that investigators have begun employing the experimental method in testing pragmatic hypotheses (see Noveck & Sperber 2004). We see this emergence of a proper experimental pragmatics as an important advance with a great potential for further development. In this chapter we want to illustrate what can be done with experimental approaches to pragmatic issues by presenting one case, that of so-called ‘scalar inferences’, where the experimental method has helped sharpen a theoretical debate and has provided uniquely relevant evidence…”
“…We agree with standard social science that culture is not human psychology writ large and that it would make little sense to seek a psychological reductionist explanation of culture. We believe, however, that psychological factors play an essential role in culture. Among these psychological factors, the modular organization of human cognitive abilities favors the recurrence, cross-cultural variability, and local stability of a wide range of cultural representations. “
“…I will argue that understanding the mind is doubly important to the study of culture. Psychological considerations are crucial both to a proper characterization of what is cultural and to a proper explanation of cultural phenomena…”
“…What I want to do here is answer two questions: How can a massively modular mind be flexible? And: How can a massively modular mind be context-sensitive?…”
The studies reported in this chapter test predictions directly inspired by central tenets of relevance theory and, in particular, by the cognitive and the communicative principles of relevance.
This volume lays down the bases for a new field, Experimental Pragmatics, that draws on pragmatics, psycholinguistics and also on the psychology of reasoning.
Abstract: The existence and diversity of human cultures are made possible by our species-specific cognitive capacities. But how? Do cultures emerge and diverge as a result of the deployment, over generations and in different populations, of general abilities to learn, imitate and communicate? What role if any do domain-specific evolved cognitive abilities play in the emergence and evolution of cultures? These questions have been approached from different vantage points in different disciplines. Here we present a view that is currently developing out of the converging work of developmental psychologists, evolutionary psychologists and cognitive anthropologists.
We outline the main assumptions of the current version of the theory and discuss some of its implications for pragmatics
We begin, with a short presentation of Cosmides’s social contract hypothesis, of Wason selection task, and of Cosmides’s reasons to use the task in order to test the theory. In a second section, we present the relevance-theoretic analysis of the selection task proposed by Sperber, Cara and Girotto (1995) which cast doubts on the appropriateness of the task to study reasoning. In a third section, we present Fiddick, Cosmides and Tooby’s (2000) defense of the use of the selection task as a tool to test evolutionary theories of reasoning, and argue that it is methodologically flawed. In a fourth section, we present three experiments designed to test contrasting predictions deriving from the two approaches. In the conclusion, we come back to Cosmides’s hypothesis and reflect on how it might be really tested…”
Abstract: Sperber, Cara, and Girotto (1995) argued that, in Wason’s selection task, relevance-guided comprehension processes tend to determine participants’ performance and pre-empt the use of other inferential capacities. Because of this, the value of the selection task as a tool for studying human inference has been grossly overestimated. Fiddick, Cosmides, and Tooby (2000) argued against Sperber et al. that specialized inferential mechanisms, in particular the “social contract algorithm” hypothesized by Cosmides (1989), pre-empt more general comprehension abilities, making the selection task a useful tool after all. We rebut this argument. We argue and illustrate with two new experiments, that Fiddick et al. mix the true Wason selection task with a trivially simple categorization task superficially similar to the Wason task, yielding methodologically flawed evidence. We conclude that the extensive use of various kinds of selection tasks in the psychology of reasoning has been quite counter-productive and should be discontinued.
Abstract: Someone asked ‘What time is it?’ when her watch reads 3:08 is likely to answer ‘It is 3:10.’ We argue that a fundamental factor that explains such rounding is a psychological disposition to give an answer that, while not necessarily strictly truthful or accurate, is an optimally relevant one (in the sense of relevance theory) i.e. an answer from which hearers can derive the consequences they care about with minimal effort. A rounded answer is easier to process and may carry the same consequences as one that is accurate to the minute. Hence rounding is often a way of optimising relevance. Three simple experiments give support and greater precision to the view that relevance is more important than strict truthfulness in verbal communication.
Abstract: This paper questions the widespread view that verbal communication is governed by a maxim, norm or convention of literal truthfulness. Pragmatic frameworks based on this view must explain the common occurrence and acceptability of metaphor, hyperbole and loose talk. We argue against existing explanations of these phenomena and provide and alternative account, based on the assumption that verbal communication is governed not by expectations of truthfulness but by expectations of relevance, which are raised by literal, loose and metaphorical talk alike. Sample analyses are provided, and some consequences of this alternative account are explored.
Abstract: The central problem for pragmatics is that sentence meaning vastly underdetermines speaker’s meaning. The goal of pragmatics is to explain how the gap between sentence meaning and speaker’s meaning is bridged. This paper defends the broadly Gricean view that pragmatic interpretation is ultimately an exercise in mind-reading, involving the inferential attribution of intentions. We argue, however, that the interpretation process does not simply consist in applying general mind-reading abilities to a particular (communicative) domain. Rather, it involves a dedicated comprehension module, with its own special principles and mechanisms. We show how such a metacommunicative module might have evolved, and what principles and mechanisms it might contain.
Contributo al convegno virtuale text-e, 2002, il primo convegno interamente virtuale dedicato all’impatto di Internet sul testo scritto, la lettura e la diffusione della conoscenza. Il convegno si è svolto dal 15 ottobre 2001 a fine marzo 2002. Su text-e troverete le dieci conferenze invitate e i dibattiti archiviati che hanno seguito ogni conferenza.
Texte écrit en anglais, français et italien pour le colloque virtuel text-e, organisé par l’Association Euro-Edu, la Bibliothèque Publique d’Information du Centre Pompidou et la Société GiantChair, colloque consacré à explorer l’impact de l’Internet sur la lecture, l’écriture et la diffusion du savoir. Le colloque s’est déroulé du 15 octobre 2001 jusqu’à fin mars 2002; les débats peuvent être consultés sur le site du colloque ou dans Text-e: Le texte à l’heure de l’Internet, Gloria Origgi & Noga Arikha eds., 2003 Paris: Bibliothèque Publique d’Information.
Text written in English, French and Italian for the virtual symposium text-e, organised by the Association Euro-Edu, the Bibliothèque Publique d’Information du Centre Pompidou and the Société GiantChair on the impact of the Web on reading, writing and the diffusion of knowledge. The symposium took place from October 15th 2001 until the end of March 2002. The debates can be read on the site of the symposium.
Abstract : When is a conclusion worth deriving? We claim that a conclusion is worth deriving to the extent that it is relevant in the sense of relevance theory (Sperber & Wilson, 1995). To support this hypothesis, we experiment with “indeterminate relational problems” where we ask participants what, if anything, follows from premises such as A is taller than B, A is taller than C. With such problems, the indeterminate response that nothing follows is common, and we explain why. We distinguish several types of determinate conclusions and show that their rate is a function of their relevance. We argue that by appropriately changing the formulation of the premises, the relevance of determinate conclusions can be increased, and the rate of indeterminate responses thereby reduced. We contrast these relevance-based predictions with predictions based on linguistic congruence.
“Notre activité mentale s’appuie sur des mémoires externes qui ont évolué avec le développement de l’écriture, de l’imprimerie, et maintenant des nouvelles technologies de l’information. Une évolution dont doivent tenir compte aussi bien les sciences sociales que les sciences cognitives…”
“…A significant proportion of socially acquired beliefs are likely to be false beliefs, and this not just as a result of the malfunctioning, but also of the proper functioning of social communication…”
Abstract: Most individuals fail the selection task, selecting P and Q cases, when they have to test descriptive rules of the form ªIf P, then Qº. But they solve it, selecting P and not-Q cases, when they have to test deontic rules of the form ªIf P, then must Qº. According to relevance theory, linguistic comprehension processes determine intuitions of relevance that, in turn, determine case selections in both descriptive and deontic problems. We tested the relevance theory predictions in a within-participants experiment. The results showed that the same rule, regardless of whether it is tested descriptively or deontically, can be made to yield more P and Q selections or more P and not-Q selections. We conclude that the selection task does not provide a tool to test general claims about human reasoning.
“In October 1990, a psychologist, Susan Gelman, and three anthropologists whose interest for cognition had been guided and encouraged by Jacques Mehler, Scott Atran, Larry Hirschfeld and myself, organized a conference on “Cultural Knowledge and Domain Specificity” … A main issue at stake was the degree to which cognitive development, everyday cognition, and cultural knowledge are based on dedicated domain-specific mechanisms, as opposed to a domain-general intelligence and learning capacity…”
“Language is both a biological and a cultural phenomenon. Our aim here is to discuss, in an evolutionary perspective, the articulation of these two aspects of language. For this, we draw on the general conceptual framework developed by Ruth Millikan (1984) while at the same time dissociating ourselves from her view of language…”
“Just as bats are unique in their ability to use echolocation, so are humans unique in their ability to use metarepresentations. Other primates may have some rather rudimentary metarepresentational capacities. We humans are massive users of metarepresentations, and of quite complex ones at that…”
Roger-Pol Droit et moi avons publié en 1999 une discussion philosophique et politique entre nous en six parties, chacune introduite par un cour essai de l’un ou de l’autre. Voici le premier de mes trois essais.
“Most work in the cognitive sciences focuses on the manner in which an individual device — be it a mind, a brain, or a computer — processes various kinds of information. Cognitive psychology in particular is primarily concerned with individual thought and behavior. Individuals however belong to populations. This is true in two quite different senses. Individual organisms are members of species and share a genome and most phenotypic traits with the other members of the same species. Organisms essentially have the cognitive capacities characteristic of their species, with relatively superficial individual variations. In social species, individuals are also members of groups. An important part of their cognitive activity is directed toward other members of the group with whom they cooperate and compete. Among humans in particular, social life is richly cultural. Sociality and culture are made possible by cognitive capacities, contribute to the ontogenetic and phylogenetic development of these capacities, and provide specific inputs to cognitive processes…”
“…given the inferential nature of comprehension, the words in a language can be used to convey not only the concepts they encode, but also indefinitely many other related concepts to which they might point in a given context. We see this not as a mere theoretical possibility, but as a universal practice, suggesting that there are many times more concepts in our minds than words in our language…”
Abstract: Humans have two kinds of beliefs, intuitive beliefs and reflective beliefs. Intuitive beliefs are a most fundamental category of cognition, defined in the architecture of the mind. They are formulated in an intuitive mental lexicon. Humans are also capable of entertaining an indefinite variety of higher-order or “reflective” propositional attitudes, many of which are of a credal sort. Reasons to hold “reflective beliefs” are provided by other beliefs that describe the source of the reflective belief as reliable, or that provide explicit arguments in favour of the reflective belief. The mental lexicon of reflective beliefs includes not only intuitive, but also reflective concepts.
“I would like to contrast two interpretations, a weak one and a strong one, of the notion of methodological individualism, and two interpretations, a weak one and a strong one, of the notion of cognitivism. This double contrast determines four ways in which one might choose to be at the same time a methodological individualist and a cognitivist in the social sciences. One way, where both positions are adopted with a weak interpretation, is of little interest. I will argue that another way, where both positions are adopted with a strong interpretation, is incoherent. I will compare the two other possibilities…”
“Je voudrai ici contraster deux interprétations, l’une faible, l’autre forte, de la notion d’individualisme méthodologique, et deux interprétations, l’une faible, l’autre forte, de la notion de cognitivisme. Des quatres façons dont il serait concevable de se vouloir individualiste et cognitiviste à la fois, l’une (où l’on adopte les deux positions dans leur interpétation faible) est de peu d’intérêt. Je soutiendrai qu’une autre façon (où l’on adopte les deux positions dans leur interprétation forte) est incohérente. Je comparerai les deux autres possibilités…”
The six essays collected in Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach (Blackwell, 1996) are all arguments for, and contributions to an epidemiology of representations.
“…Since it cannot have foreknowledge of relevance, how can the mind have, at least, non-arbitrary expectations of relevance?…”
Abstract: We propose a general and predictive explanation of the Wason Selection Task (where subjects are asked to select evidence for testing a conditional “rule”). Our explanation is based on a reanalysis of the task, and on Relevance Theory. We argue that subjects’ selections in all true versions of the Selection Task result from the following procedure. Subjects infer from the rule directly testable consequences. They infer them in their order of accessibility, and stop when the resulting interpretation of the rule meets their expectations of relevance. Subjects then select the cards that may test the consequences they have inferred from the rule. Order of accessibility of consequences and expectations of relevance vary with rule and context, and so, therefore, does subjects’ performance. By devising appropriate rule-context pairs, we predict that correct performance can be elicited in any conceptual domain. We corroborate this prediction with four experiments. We argue that past results properly reanalyzed confirm our account. We discuss the relevance of the Selection Task to the study of reasoning.
“…Full-fledged communicative competence involves, for the speaker, being capable of having at least third-order meta-representational communicative intentions, and, for the hearer, being capable of making at least fourth-order meta-representational attributions of such communicative intentions. … This does not imply that communicators are conscious of the complexity of their mental representations. What it does imply is that every tier of these representations may play a role in inference…” [PDF version]
Paul Jorion et moi étions plus jeunes, mais le débat était déjà vieux!
Abstract: In Relevance: Communication and Cognition, we outline a new approach to the study of human communication, one based on a general view of human cognition. Attention and thought processes, we argue, automatically turn toward information that seems relevant: that is, capable of yielding cognitive effects – the more, and the more economically, the greater the relevance. We analyse both the nature of cognitive effects and the inferential processes by which they are derived. …
Here is the whole book that had been out of print for a while.
According to the mention theory of irony put forward by Sperber and Wilson and tested by Jorgensen, Miller, and Sperber, verbal ironies are implicit echoic mentions of meaning conveying a derogatory attitude to the meaning mentioned. In their criticisms, Clark and Gerrig misrepresent mention theory. The pretense theory, which they offer as a superior alternative, might provide a plausible description of parody, but it fails to account for many types and many properties of irony proper.
The traditional theory of irony, which assumes that an ironist uses a figurative meaning opposite to the literal meaning of the utterance, is shown to be inadequate; an alternative theory is presented, which assumes that the ironist mentions the literal meaning of the utterance and expresses an attitude toward it. Although the implications for understanding irony are difficult to test, the two theories do make testable predictions about the conditions under which irony is perceived: The mention theory requires antecedent material for the ironist to mention, whereas the standard theory does not. A reading comprehension test was conducted involving anecdotes that satisfied the traditional criterion for irony but could include or omit antecedents for echoic mention. Results favored the mention theory of irony.
The first account in English of our theory of verbal irony as echoic mention.
Here is the whole book that had been out of print for a while.