October 18, 2007
Connection Between Indirect Speech & Spatial Relationships
We're now moving into the topic of cognition, where Steven Pinker comes onto the PopTech stage in a suit (with bright red tie) and black cowboy boots. I've heard Pinker speak several times over the years. He recently came out with a new book called The Stuff of Thought, which we all received copies of just for showing up.
He talked to us about the various ways to study human nature and language. For example, we can use verbs as a window into the concept of causality and responsibility, and prepositions as a window into conscious space.
Given limited time to explore them all, he decides to focus on the relationship between indirect speech and spacial relationships. He reminds us how often we fall into indirect speech with others.
For example, "if you could pass the guacamole, that would be awesome." We interpret this as a polite request. Or, "we're counting on you to show leadership in our campaign For the Future," and "would you like to come up and see my etchings?"
He asks us, "why are bribes, requests, seductions, solicitations and threats so often veiled when both parties know what they mean. It's a naughty problem."
Solutions come in three parts, one of which is the identification problem in game theory. How do you figure out the rational course of acction when the outcome depends on another intellectual agent?
Imagine you have two options? A plea/bribe to a dishonest police officer and one to an honest officer? If you have an honest officer, he would likely rebuff the bribe but arrest you for bribing an officer. To a dishonest officer, you may get away with it. A veiled bribe would yield a different result, and the question remains: which one is a better option? In this case, the veiled bribe would likely appear to be a wiser choice.
Says Pinker, "language can be conveyed in different ways, i.e., it can be polite or it can be literal. Literal content makes no sense. (an overstatement becomes irrelevant)
He also talks to us about three kinds of relationships:
1. Dominance - "don't mess with me."
2. Communality - i.e., logic is share and share alike, which was developed through mutualism and kin selection.
3. Reciprocity - "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours, which characterizes the typical business exchange of services"
When a relationship is ambiguous, divergent understanding can be costly. Is the relationship one of dominance or friendship? Communality or reciprocity? Dominance or sex?
"This gets sliced to a social identification problem," says Pinker. The emotional costs of awkwardness can duplicate payoff matrix of legal identification, example: bribing a maitre d', which apparently works most of the time or all of the time. One such example based on an article that was written about this very experience, resulted in success all of the time.
One remaining problem is why do we resort to indirectness even when there is no real uncertainty?, i.e., when the speaker knows the listener's values, i.e., that maitre d's are bribable.
Language is obviously a great way to share mutual knowledge. Mutual knowledge IS the basis of relationships, he suggests.
To sum up, he asks us, "what does indirect speech tell us about human social life?" Humans are very very touchy about relationships. People distinguish these relationships sharply. Humans think a lot about what other humans think about them and their relationships are ratified by the mutual knowledge. In order to preserve their relationships, humans often engage in hypocrisy and taboo.
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speech and game theory in one post - right up my alley!
Thanks Renee for live blogging Pop!Tech
Posted by: paul | Oct 20, 2007 12:25:32 PM