Social Cues Modulate Cognitive Status of Discourse Referents


We use visual world eye-tracking to test if a speaker’s eye gaze to a potential antecedent modulates the listener’s interpretation of an ambiguous pronoun. Participants listened to stories that included an ambiguous pronoun, such as “The dolphin kisses the goldfish… He….” During the pre-pronominal context, an onscreen narrator gazed at one of the two characters. As expected, participants looked more at the subject character overall. However, this was modulated by the narrator’s eye gaze and the amount of time the participant spent looking at the gaze cue. For trials in which participants attended to the narrator’s eye gaze for > 500ms, participants were significantly more likely to interpret the pronoun as referring to the object if the narrator had previously looked at the object. Results suggest that eye gaze – a social cue – can temper even strong linguistic/cognitive biases in pronoun resolution, such as the subject/first-mention bias.

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