Research Interests

Pragmatic inference

People often speak indirectly. For example, the sentence “My car isn’t starting” could be intended not only as a statement of fact, but also as a request for a ride. Similarly, the sentence “Can you open that window?” can function as a request to open the window, a question about the hearer’s ability to do so, or both.

How do comprehenders determine whether a speaker is making a request? Specifically: which linguistic and non-linguistic cues to an utterance’s meaning do comprehenders exploit to enrich the meaning of an under-specified utterance like “My car isn’t starting”? And what accounts for individual differences in the likelihood to sample and deploy particular cue to meaning?

Mentalizing for indirect request comprehension

Interlocutors don’t always know or believe the same things. For example, a comprehender might know that the heater is broken, but the speaker might not. To what extent do comprehenders modulate their interpretation of an utterance like “It’s cold in here” as a function of what the speaker believes about the world? And does a given comprehender’s mentalizing capacity predict their likelihood of adopting a speaker’s perspective when inferring what they mean?

Relevant papers and projects:

  • Trott, S., & Bergen, B. (2018). Individual Differences in Mentalizing Capacity Predict Indirect Request Comprehension. Discourse Processes. [Link] [Link to experimental materials]
  • Trott, S., & Bergen, B. (2017, October). A theoretical model of indirect request comprehension. In 2017 AAAI Fall Symposium Series. [Link]

The role of prosody in indirect request comprehension

Another cue to meaning is prosody: the rhythmic and intonational properties of how an utterance is spoken and signed. Can speakers and hearers use prosody to overcome the ambiguity of indirect requests?

Relevant papers and projects:

  • Trott, S., Reed, S., Ferreira, V., & Bergen, B. (2019) Prosodic cues signal the intent of potential indirect requests. Proceedings of the 41st Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society. [Link] [Data and code for analysis]