(Mis)Communication, Ambiguous Lexical Choices, and Perspective Taking in Dyadic Tasks
From changing a tire to preparing a meal, we often work with others to achieve our goals – but not always as well as we would hope. Miscommunication can be a major source of consternation as we try to work with others, especially when there are differences in knowledge or spatial orientation between partners. We sometimes forget that our view of the world does not always match our partner’s. This misalignment of views can lead to minor mishaps with short-term difficulties or cascade into long-lasting catastrophes. We may begin to resolve momentary lapses in successful communication through moment-to-moment adjustments in our understanding of the world or grounding. Here, we present results that support the importance of grounding and perspective-taking to successful communication. In the current work, dyadic performance on a collaborative task is hindered by difficulties in perspective taking, and certain lexical choices appear to promote mistakes and miscommunication.
Specifically, the task at hand required interlocutors to build an object together, much like the tinker-toy task described by Sentf (2002). Dyads were separated by a partition and took turns describing pictorial instructions for building children’s toys out of abstract pieces. Transcripts of the task were coded for grounding (i.e., acknowledgement of the partner’s instruction) and local success (i.e., ability to correctly follow the partner’s intended instruction). Of the approximately 8400 turns in our corpus, approximately 36% included some type of miscommunication. We then evaluated the lexical choices made during these instances of communication failure using LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count; Pennebaker, Booth, & Francis, 2007) and found that that the use of Negation and Spatial terms contributed most to communicative failures. The former finding suggested that interlocutors were often aware – at least in the context of a task-based interaction – that a problem may have arisen. The latter finding supported a central role of perspective-taking: interlocutors had the most difficulty with the use of spatial terminology when referencing the three-dimensional objects they were manipulating (e.g., “up” along the y- vs. z-axes). Therefore, we concluded that the ambiguous nature of spatial terminology might have exacerbated problems in perspective taking when interlocutors were trying to provide referential cues to their partner.
While miscommunication is a common problem during interaction, it has tended to be neglected in empirical work. The current project adds to the growing miscommunication literature through examining the linguistic predictors for successful and unsuccessful communication. Future work will focus on modeling and comparing the dynamics of successful and unsuccessful communication in the corpus.