Archive for Psychology of language

Lexical limits?

Earlier today, Victor quotes Jerry Packard quoting C.C. Cheng to the effect that "the human lexicon has a de facto storage limit of 8,000 lexical items" ("Lexical limits", 12/5/2015). Victor is appropriately skeptical, and asks  for "references to any studies that have been done on the limits to (or norms for) the human lexicon".  In fact there's been a lot of quantitative research on this topic, going back at least 75 years, which supports Victor's skepticism, and demonstrates clearly that Cheng's estimate is low by such a large factor that I wonder whether his idea has somehow gotten mangled at some point along the chain of quotation.

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New frontiers in bullshitology

Gordon Pennycook, James Allan CheyneNathaniel Barr, Derek J. Koehler, & Jonathan A. Fugelsang, "On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit", Judgment and Decision Making 2015:

Although bullshit is common in everyday life and has attracted attention from philosophers, its reception (critical or ingenuous) has not, to our knowledge, been subject to empirical investigation. Here we focus on pseudo-profound bullshit, which consists of seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous. We presented participants with bullshit statements consisting of buzzwords randomly organized into statements with syntactic structure but no discernible meaning (e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”). Across multiple studies, the propensity to judge bullshit statements as profound was associated with a variety of conceptually relevant variables (e.g., intuitive cognitive style, supernatural belief). Parallel associations were less evident among profundity judgments for more conventionally profound (e.g., “A wet person does not fear the rain”) or mundane (e.g., “Newborn babies require constant attention”) statements. These results support the idea that some people are more receptive to this type of bullshit and that detecting it is not merely a matter of indiscriminate skepticism but rather a discernment of deceptive vagueness in otherwise impressive sounding claims. Our results also suggest that a bias toward accepting statements as true may be an important component of pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity.

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"Often more [difficulty] than in this chosen pair"

We've often complained about the ignorant aftermath of E.B. White's ignorant 1959 incitement to which-hunting, which launched the idea that restrictive (or integrated, or defining) relative clauses in English should always and only be introduced by that, while non-restrictive (or supplementary, or non-defining) relative clauses should be introduced by which. (See "Reddit blewit" 12/24/2012 for details and additional links. Note that for simplicity, I'm considering only relative clauses with inanimate/nonhuman heads, though the fundamental point remains the same when we add who to the mix.)

My point today is that the whole distinction is a false one.

More exactly: The traditional restrictive/non-restrictive dichotomy merges distinct morphological, syntactic, semantic, prosodic, rhetorical, and psychological questions; the correlation among these different dimensions is loose at best; several of the relevant distinctions are gradient rather than categorical; and some of the distinctions are sometimes a matter of pragmatic vagueness rather than grammatical ambiguity.

If I'm right, then modern linguists have been committing White's sin in a less extreme form, trying to impose an over-simplified rationalist taxonomy on a more complex linguistic reality.

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Denying that the earth is not flat

M.S. wrote to contribute an item for our misnegation collection — Liel Leibovitz, "‘The New York Times’ Goes Truther on the Temple Mount", Tablet 10/9/2015 [emphasis added]:

And so, because the paper of record won’t put it clearly, permit me the pleasure: Denying that a Jewish temple stood on the Temple Mount is not a form of historical argument. It is akin to denying that the earth is not flat. Or denying that global warming is real. Or that the evidence of human evolution is widely accepted by scholars.

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What the fingers want

Whole-word substitutions are a common type of speech error: "Italy" for "Israel", "competent" for "confident", "restaurant" for "rhapsody", "drink" for "breathe". The substituted word is often associated with the target word or with its context, often starts with sounds similar to the target word, and often has similar syllable counts and stress patterns. An even stronger regularity is the syntactic category rule — the substituted word is almost always the same part of speech as the target word. Thus in the speech-error corpus examined by David Fay and Anne Cutler in their 1977 work "Malapropisms and the structure of the mental lexicon", this syntactic category rule held for 95% of all word-substitution errors.

Therefore substitutions like "They provider very good care" for "They provide very good care", or "He resignation yesterday" for "He resigned yesterday", are quite unlikely — in speech. In typing, in contrast, such slips of the finger are very common. I make errors like this all the time, with -ing or -ed or -s or -er or nothing appearing where one of the other choices would be correct. I haven't counted, but I think that my lapsus digitorum of this kind are an order of magnitude more common than the confident-for-competent variety.

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McDonald's Minionese: WTF?

As a tie-in with Minions the movie, McDonald's is giving out a dozen different Minions toys with Happy Meals. Like the Minions in the movie, the toys speak the invented language "Minionese" — though you have to bump or hit the toys to get them to respond. The response to this marketing initiative has been dominated by the fact that one of them, the caveman Minion, seems to many people to be saying "What the fuck" and "Well I'll be damned":

(Audio from here.)

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Word aversion science

Paul Thibodeau et al., "An Exploratory Investigation of Word Aversion", COGSCI 2014:

Why do people self-report an aversion to words like “moist”? The present study represents an initial scientific exploration into the phenomenon of word aversion by investigating its prevalence and cause. We find that as many as 20% of the population equates hearing the word “moist” to the sound of fingernails scratching a chalkboard. This population often speculates that phonological properties of the word are the cause of their displeasure. One tantalizing possibility is that words like “moist” are aversive because speaking them engages facial muscles that correspond to expressions of disgust. However, three experiments suggest that semantic features of the word – namely, associations with disgusting bodily functions – underlie peoples’ unpleasant experience. This finding broadens our understanding of language and contributes to a growing literature on the cognitive processes relating to highly valenced and arousing words.

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Malapropism of the week

[h/t David Donnell]

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Early Alzheimer's signs in Reagan's speech

Lawrence Altman, "Parsing Ronald Reagan’s Words for Early Signs of Alzheimer’s", NYT 3/30/2015:

Even before Ronald Reagan became the oldest elected president, his mental state was a political issue. His adversaries often suggested his penchant for contradictory statements, forgetting names and seeming absent-mindedness could be linked to dementia.  

In 1980, Mr. Reagan told me that he would resign the presidency if White House doctors found him mentally unfit. Years later, those doctors and key aides told me they had not detected any changes in his mental abilities while in office.  

Now a clever new analysis has found that during his two terms in office, subtle changes in Mr. Reagan’s speaking patterns linked to the onset of dementia were apparent years before doctors diagnosed his Alzheimer’s disease in 1994.

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Could this really be the end?

..of the nonsense about narcissism and pronoun counts? Probably not, but it should be.

I'm talking about Angela L. Carey,  Melanie S. Brucks, Albrecht CP Küfner, Nicholas S. Holtzman, Mitja D. Back, M. Brent Donnellan, James W. Pennebaker, and Matthias R. Mehl, "Narcissism and the use of personal pronouns revisited", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3/30/2015:

Among both laypersons and researchers, extensive use of first-person singular pronouns (i.e., I-talk) is considered a face-valid linguistic marker of narcissism. However, the assumed relation between narcissism and I-talk has yet to be subjected to a strong empirical test. Accordingly, we conducted a large-scale (N = 4,811), multisite (5 labs), multimeasure (5 narcissism measures) and dual-language (English and German) investigation to quantify how strongly narcissism is related to using more first-person singular pronouns across different theoretically relevant communication contexts (identity-related, personal, impersonal, private, public, and stream-of-consciousness tasks). Overall (r = .02, 95% CI [−.02, .04]) and within the sampled contexts, narcissism was unrelated to use of first-person singular pronouns (total, subjective, objective, and possessive). This consistent near-zero effect has important implications for making inferences about narcissism from pronoun use and prompts questions about why I-talk tends to be strongly perceived as an indicator of narcissism in the absence of an underlying actual association between the 2 variables.

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Your tension has been exterminated

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Linguistic dominance in House of Cards

You may have seen "The Ascent: Political Destiny and the Makings of a First Couple", now featured on the e-front-cover of The Atlantic magazine:

If you click on the link, the top left of the resulting page bears a little tag telling you that you're reading "sponsored content" — and if you mouseover that tag, you'll learn that

This content was created by Atlantic Re:think, The Atlantic's creative marketing group, and made possible by our Sponsor. It does not necessarily reflect the views of The Atlantic's editorial staff.

One piece of that "The Ascent" page, down at the bottom under the heading "Frank and Claire: Patterns of Power", presents a bit of computational psycholinguistics:

We can tell a lot about ourselves by the words we use. But not the big words. The small ones: you, we, I, me, can’t, don’t, won’t. In fact, if we pan back far enough, we can see broader traits, like dominance and submissiveness. Which is exactly what we did by analyzing all of Frank and Claire Underwood’s private dialogue throughout House of Cards Seasons 2-3, using a special language-processing software. The results were fascinating.

This post gives a bit of the background of that segment, including my own small role in its genesis. The main point is to prepare the ground for a discussion of the ideas involved, which I think are interesting and important; but maybe a description of the process will also be interesting.

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