Category Archives: Intention Reading

Making eye contact as one form of coordination between store clerks and shoppers

Yesterday (a busy Saturday at 4pm) I went to a clothing store with my wife. While I was shopping I was almost run into by 4 employees who I felt were not looking where they were going. Two other employees were standing with clothing racks such that they blocked the entire aisle (these were main aisles too) and I had to weave my way through a maze of aisles to effectively navigate around the workers.

This struck me as odd.

Before I go any further, let me say that I have participated in other cultures where eye contact is dispreferred and this is not one of those situations.

I mentioned to my wife that no one was looking up to see where they were going and that no one had made eye contact with me. She said “maybe they have other ways of seeing where they are going.” I responded that I was not talking about whether or not they were able to sense obstacles in their paths, but it was more a matter of coordination.

I don’t meant coordination in terms of a person’s ability to balance or juggle or chew gum and walk; I meant coordination in terms of the social performance of a joint activity, in this case, negotiating aisle-etiquette between two people (let alone the fact that this incident was between store workers and a store customer). This is a matter of whether or not two people are able to jointly indicate to each other that they are aware of the presence of the other person so that mutually informed decisions about walking and passing can be established. As it stands, even if those employees sensed my presence their posture, lack of eye-contact, and aloof busyness prohibited them from confirming to me (and probably other shoppers) that they were not about to run me over.

Had they taken the brief 500 or so milliseconds to make eye contact with me, we both could have coordinated our actions any neither of us would have had to sacrifice energy to avoid the other.

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Usage-Based Construction Selection

I just posted a seminar essay that I wrote a few months ago to the Cognitive Science Network. You can download the paper here (click the button that says “One-Click Download”) and read the abstract below:


Broadly, the cognitive linguistic enterprise seeks to identify an emergentist approach to language that investigates the motivation of language use, considers the effects of distributed cognition in situated communication, views complex systems of form-meaning pairings as primitives, and views online processing as dynamic. Within this tradition, this essay takes the position that language use is a manifestation of construal operations in the selection process of utilizing appropriate constructions which encode speaker perspective in a situated common ground. What follows is a usage-based treatment of the situated nature of construction selection in adult language informed by research in child language acquisition, discourse studies of communication, and construction grammar.

A Layered Approach to a Common Ground Reading

I just posted another paper on the Social Science Research Network, it is an analysis of a multi-layered communication situation using Herbert Clark’s notion of the Common Ground.  Here is the abstract:

In a January 27, 2011 interview on the National Public Radio radio show Fresh Air (hosted by Terry Gross), guest Robert Spitzer made this comment: “Brazil doesn’t have a second amendment in their constitution.” However, as of May 2010 the Citizen Constitution (Brazil’s constitution since 1988) has been amended 64 times, which necessarily includes a second instance of an amendment being made. This fact renders a literal reading of Spitzer’s remark to be infelicitous. Instead, it is argued that Spitzer’s remark utilized the architecture of the situation to engage participants in a joint activity of maximizing the common ground.

This essay explores the role of a shared common ground in layered communication situations which enables participants to understand speaker construals. This falls within the domain of joint attention and pragmatic analysis of communication situations. Clark’s (1996) notion of Common Ground will be used to analyze the situation and untangle the communication layers to question what each participant needs to understand in order to orient on the intended meaning of the speaker. Using attested data from a radio interview, this paper explores three layers of communication and identifies the various aspects of a common ground that are required for a proper reading of a speaker’s intended meaning. This common ground is argued to be essential in the process of the negotiation of meaning. What follows is an initial exposition of the methodological process in this analysis, followed by a situating of the context for the data, and finally the application of the analytical method to the data with appropriate conclusions.

Attention Hot Heads (of any stripe): I want to be clear about this, I am analyzing the structure and content of someone’s statements about the Second Amendment; I am not making any kind of evaluation (positive, negative, or neutral) of the content of the surrounding political discourse about gun laws.  I will not debate in the comments about any aspect of this political discourse, but I will debate aspects of my analysis and of Clark’s notion of the common ground.

Download my paper here:

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On Failure & Resilience in Optimization of Human Systems, Ecological Systems, and Networked Systems of Systems

I was recently watching Eleanor Saitta’s talk called “Your Infrastructure Will Kill You“.  Part of her talk outlined how optimization equals fragility (more or less).  That to the degree that something is cleaner, more elegant, or more efficient, it is fragile, and a break in the system can be potentially catastrophic.

In thinking about her comments I thought of a few examples where I have observed optimization creating a state of fragility, here are a few of my thoughts:

  • This has interesting considerations for general principles of design, specifically the form/function aspect of design. Probably the point at which form begins to extend beyond the needs of function the focus on form becomes gratuitous and potentially even hazardous (depending on the type of system).  Ironically, optimization in this case is not absolute optimization, but only optimization considering a specific set of requirements: when things are running smoothly then the system is optimized.
  • Another place for failure is when relationships are optimized; when the dispersal of information through a system relies on optimized relationships it only takes the breaking of one of the nodes in a network to create a chain reaction of subsequent nodes being uninformed.We think about how a well-connected network effectively distributes information, specifically in recent thought this informed an analysis of William Dawes vs. Paul Revere – showing how Revere’s relationship of network brokers enabled him to broadcast more extensively than Dawes’ impoverished closed network.  This is good thinking, except that it misses the point of threat: Revere was a weak link in that optimized chain of information; had he been eliminated his message would have been eliminated.  Revere and his network, although connected and optimized, were fragile.
  • In generative linguistics there is an optimization of the lexicon. Economy in space is valued above economy in processing; if this is opaque to you, I mean that generative linguistics tries to minimize the amount of information that it stores as unique units.  It is called “generative” because it generates complex utterances from values stored in the lexicon through recursion, instead of storing those values as wholes.  But there is a weakness; in optimizing the lexicon the generative power of the spell-out rules of Universal Grammar are fragile when it comes to dealing with actual language usage (which is the test of a linguistic theory, is it not?), and the rules fail to account for some foundational constructions of language (like idioms for example).

Ok, so there are lots of places where optimization leads to failure, but what are some ways in which optimization leads to resilience?  What are some solutions to these problems?

Redundancy is a great solution, but it is bulky.

  • When function is optimized it allows you to work backwards in the process of making things have better forms. This is actually how a lot of design progresses.  Think about how every piece of electronic technology that we have today had a larger predecessor.  Think about those clunky mobile phones from the eighties with the handset, base and cord in a leather bag, now look at the mobile phone you carry in your pocket.  Functionality was concept proven in the clunky design, and the form was optimized to enhance the function.
  • It seems to me that the optimization weakness in the Revere incident was that Revere was the weak link.  Instead of depending on the optimization of Revere’s relationships, perhaps the message itself needed optimization. One possible way to optimize the information load of a message is to abstract it (as was done with the signal of the hanging lanterns to indicate the route of attack), and another way is to reduce dependence upon a single messenger exploiting a network (In 1775 the sexton who hung the lanterns was a single messenger, Revere was a single messenger, et cetera).  Flooding a network with messengers bearing an abstracted signal would have been less fragile (put aside for the moment the need for secrecy in the 1775 incident).  In situations where secrecy is not vital, consider how this kind of network flooding would communicate the coherence of the message; when you hear the same thing from five people you at least start giving some credence to the constancy of the message.  In such cases what may have been unknown or even background information becomes salient and foregrounded through repeated exposure. Also, consider other types of signals that can be exploited to prompt a response of crowd mobilization, noises work particularly well.  Sirens and loud noises alert and orient people’s attentional systems toward the source of the signal, and that source becomes figural in the contextual noise of that signal.
  • Optimization can lead to resilience in online processing, like in a maximized lexicon that places the task of optimization on the processing skills required in the selection and extraction of form-meaning elements from the inventory.  Cognitive approaches to the lexicon seek to preserve economy in processing; instead of having a minimal lexicon with lots of processing rules, the cognitive approach has an ordered inventory of form-meaning pairings (including monomorphemic elements, constructions, and phrases that are learned whole), with an optimized processing system of constraints, schemas, and other elements of cognitive processing (see this week’s post on emergentist vs. universalist view for understanding the contrast in general cognitive processing vs. modular mind).
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How Children’s Overgeneralizations in Construction Use Informs Second Language Acquisition and the Negotiation of Meaning

The acquisition of abstract grammatical constructions represents the maturation of a child’s linguistic productivity.  This productivity means that a child can take constructions that have already been learned and extend the application of the construction by using different words.

One way to identify if the child has utilized a new construction in a productive way is to look for overgeneralizations in the application of the construction.  For instance, things that sound like mistakes in a child’s speech might actually represent the analogical extension of a learned construction into new lexical territory to attempt to communicate something that the child understands, but which is outside of the acquired bank of constructions.  Children sometimes use intransitive verbs in a transitive construction.  While this overgeneralization of the transitive construction is ungrammatical, it does represent an attempt at productive use of learned lexical concepts in learned constructions.  Adults encountering overgeneralizations may be able to determine what the child is attempting to communicate as the actual utterance represents an encoding of a concept with the construction as the foundation of meaning with the intransitive verb as the domain of meaning.  “He falled me down” (Bowerman 1982, cited in Tomasello 2003) is an attested case which indicates that the child has not acquired the appropriate transitive verb to describe the situation of being knocked over, even though the child has acquired the transitive construction.

This is a strategy of innovation in conversation, and may have insight for second language acquisition; when a construction for a particular concept is known, but the lexical particulars are unknown, adapting lexical particulars that account for the general concept and using them in a known construction permits the fielding of the ill-formed utterance and enabling the negotiation of meaning to take place.

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Intention Directing, Self-Reporting, and the Transitive Constructions in Early Childhood Grammar (preschool, 2-5 years old)

Group of children in a primary school in Paris

Image via Wikipedia

Since constructions are learned through usage, constructions are accumulated as individual entities that begin to form collections and these collections of constructions begin to exhibit type frequency.  I think that this type frequency represents an aspect of the nature of child conceptualization, and indeed, it enables the communication of conceptualization in relational behavior from early ages.  This post explores a little about my extension of Tomasello’s analysis of the abstract transitive construction from his book Constructing a Language.

Tomasello divides a list of verbs used in the transitive constructions into four categories: Having Objects, Moving or Transforming Objects, Acting on Objects, and Psychological Activities (150, Tomasello: 2003).  These are not productive constructions until around 3,5; at which point children begin to use the transitive construction with verbs outside of the list presented by Tomasello.  Children use the verbs to indicate Agent and Patient roles in the [Trans-SUBJ Trans-VERB Trans-OBJ] transitive construction.  Looking through the list of verbs presented in Tomasello’s text it is easy to see that children have subjective conceptualizations and are able to begin articulating these ideas.  Verbs like: mean, know, like, help, need, and want represent a complex internal awareness of the interface between the physical/objective world and the mental/subjective world.  This understanding of the descriptive functions of the transitive construction enable the child to foray into relational transactions that involve intention-directing and launch the child into participation in the social world with the means to assert their identity as communicative entities in conversation.  These constructions allow self-reporting of internal states and an articulation of desire that transcends the physical environment.  The child can now make declarations, but also utter imperatives regarding subjective concepts to effect changes in the concrete world.

Interestingly, the early abstract transitive constructions allow the child to place varying degrees of focus on the elements used in the construction.  This is a salience-determining skill that allows the child to manipulate meaning in relation to the Agent and Patient roles, which may be a precursor to learning other constructions like the Passive construction.  Additionally, the emergence of this ability may represent the manifestation of figure-ground distinctions in early child grammar.

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Foundational Cognitive Skills that Babies Need in Language Development

Reading on a Friday night

Image by mr brown via Flickr

As mentioned (yesterday’s post) three skills emerge from this acceptance of the triadic perspective:

1) Joint Attention Frame; 2)Intention Reading; and 3) Cultural Learning (Pattern Finding).  Joint Attention is the ability to coordinate attention with another individual on a third entity.  These third entities move from strictly concrete entities to more abstract entities as time goes by.  Without the ability to have a joint attention frame the transfer of knowledge would be impossible and the ability to converse with others in a meaningful way is equally impossible.  The process of intention reading is critical to understanding how others can have their behaviors influenced and likewise how the self can be influenced by the intentions of others.  Although not explicitly stated in Tomasello’s 2003 text, this particular cognitive skill would seem to be the foundation of basic relational strategies like the establishment of trust and credibility.  The final skill is pattern finding which enables cultural learning as the infant observes behavioral, intentional, and relational patterns in the contextual cultural community.  The child develops a sense for how things are done by intentional agents as the child attends to the patterns demonstrated through the everyday lives of those intentional agents with whom the child relates.

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