The avoidance of ambiguity during conversation: More than mere priming or mimicry?


Interlocutors often omit important words during conversation, which can lead to miscommunication during ambiguous scenarios (Rayner, Carlson, & Frasyer, 1983). Haywood, Pickering and Branigan (2004) show that under ambiguous situations, listeners are highly sensitive to syntactic primes. The studies reported here evaluated the effects of linguistic and nonlinguistic cues to ambiguity. Experiment 1 implemented a syntactic prime and a visual mistake from a pseudo-confederate to promote disambiguation. Participants were successfully primed to disambiguate their statements during the pseudo-conversation but the visual mistake had no effect. Experiment 2 evaluated the effect of the visual mistake in the absence of a prime during an ambiguous pseudo-conversation. There was a significant effect of visual mistake for participants who believed they were speaking with a real person. Overall, participants did not merely mimic their pseudo-conversation partner’s syntactic prime, but perceived other cues to the breakdown in communication to better clarify their own statements.

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