Science-- there's something for everyone

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Does it mean what you think it does?

When we hear someone speak, we infer far more information than is actually present in the words.  It isn’t a surprise that this occurs, but I found myself a bit surprised at the degree to which it occurs. For example, suppose you hear someone say, “I broke a finger yesterday.” Did you notice that you had only assumed that the person broke her own finger and not someone else’s?  That wasn’t stated.

Ryan Doran, Gregory Ward and Meredith Larson from Northwestern University were interested in whether people are aware of how much extra information they tend to infer from statements.  They gave 74 participants a series of short written conversations and asked them to evaluate the truth of the declarations. They found that people can distinguish between what is implicitly stated and what is inferred, but they do a better job if they are directed to focus on the truth of each statement.  That is, if they were keyed to interpret meanings literally, they were less likely to add implied meanings in their heads.

I’m not sure how useful this information is, other than in designing riddles to trick your friends.  But it is interesting how readily we tend to add extra meaning to what we hear or read.