Category: Language

Here’s why phrases like “rowdy bowels” and “moose ooze” seem funny

By Emma Young

Which is funnier:

Sell bargain — or nymph piss?

Roof darkness — or gravy orgy?

Large small — or moose ooze?

If you went for the second each time, you’d be in good company. In a new study, participants gave word pairs in the second set the highest humour ratings, while those in the first languished near the bottom. One very obvious difference is that those in the second set reference sex or bodily excretions, while the others don’t. But Cynthia S. Q. Siew at the National University of Singapore, along with Tomas Engelthaler and Thomas T. Hills at the University of Warwick, also identified broader factors at play. In their paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, they argue that these factors explain why gangster pasta, for example, is funnier than insult nickname.

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We’re only able to mentally represent an exact number if we have a word for it

By Emma Young

Babies, monkeys and even bees have a basic “sense of number”. They can instantly perceive that there are one, two, three or four objects in a pile, without having to count them. They can also tell at a glance that a pile of 50 objects contains more than a pile of 20, say. But what explains the unique ability of older kids and adults to go far beyond this, and mentally represent quantities much bigger than four exactly? Some researchers argue that language must be key — that learning to count “one”, “two”, “three”, and on and on, enables this cognitive feat. Others argue that language can’t be fundamental to this “numerical” ability.

Now a striking new study in Psychological Science by Benjamin Pitt at the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues comes down firmly on the side of language as being key. And this has a broader significance. It supports the hotly contested idea that language itself influences or even enables abilities that have been viewed as being completely independent — such as colour perception, or, in this case, understanding of number.

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Labelling something a “conspiracy theory” does little to stop people from believing it

By Emma Young

The label “conspiracy theory” is often slapped on unsubstantiated ideas. But does labelling something a conspiracy theory actually discredit it? A new paper in the  British Journal of Psychology suggests not. Karen M. Douglas at the University of Kent and colleagues find that people call an idea that they already consider unbelievable a “conspiracy theory” — rather than being influenced by that term to disbelieve it.

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Language Proficiency Can Determine How Similarly First And Second Languages Are Represented In The Brain

By Emma L. Barratt

Researchers widely agree that first and second languages are handled similarly in the brain. According to previous research, proficient bilinguals’ brain activity is broadly quite similar when accessing their first and second languages.

However, the literature exploring this until now has relied on imaging methods that can tell us where in the brain there is activity, but not how languages are represented in those areas. Distinct patterns of activation may have differentiated first and second languages in those same regions all this time, and by relying on traditional forms of imaging analysis alone, we could have been none the wiser.

Thanks to new imaging methods, however, we’re finally able to take a look at activation in these areas in a much more detailed way. Now, newly published work from Emily Nichols at The University of Western Ontario and colleagues suggests that languages are represented more distinctly than we thought.

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Tackling Income Inequality Could Boost Children’s Vocabulary

By Emily Reynolds

In 1995, a seminal book was published suggesting that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were exposed to 30 million fewer words than richer children by the age of 4 — the so-called “word gap”. The idea is now widespread and has informed early childhood policy in the United States (though the findings are more contentious than this ubiquity might suggest).

But why might these kids be exposed to fewer words? A new study from a team at the University of California, Berkeley, finds that worries about financial insecurity reduced the amount that caregivers spoke to their small children, suggesting that these concerns themselves could be at least partly responsible for the word gap.

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Ability To Name Unrelated Words Is A Good Test Of Creativity

By Emma L. Barratt

Obtaining a solid measurement of creativity can be hugely time consuming. Well-established tests — such as the Alternative Uses Task (AUT), which asks participants to generate unusual ways to use common objects — require substantial time and effort in order to properly score participant responses. Not only that, but assessment of the creativity of responses varies wildly as a result of both the scorers’ judgements and the qualities of answers relative to the rest of the data. For example, one especially creative response amongst a sea of generic responses may garner extra points; place that same answer amongst other highly creative responses, however, and it is likely to score lower.

But take heart, overstretched researchers — a new paper in PNAS suggests there may be an easier, more reliable way to measure creativity.

In an effort to combat these issues, researchers led by Jay A. Olson from Harvard University have attempted to streamline the process by devising a new task which can be easily analysed by a computer algorithm.

Their research suggests that the newly created measure — the Divergent Association Task (DAT) — may be at least as effective at measuring verbal creativity as other, more widely known creativity measures, with the added bonuses of being both shorter and more enjoyable to participants.

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In English, Round And Spiky Objects Tend To Have “Round” And “Spiky” Sounds

By Emma Young

Many of us are familiar with the “bouba/kiki”, or “maluma/takete” effect — that we tend to pair round, blobby shapes with the words “bouba” or “maluma” and spiky shapes with “kiki” or “takete”. These findings hold for speakers of many different languages and ages, and various explanations for the effect have been proposed.

But these studies have almost exclusively used made-up words (like these four), note the authors of a new paper in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, who have found that the effect is also at play in the English language. That is, the components of made-up words that we commonly pair with a round shape tend also to be found in nouns that refer to actual round objects, and the same for spiky sounds and objects.

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Describing Groups To Children Using Generic Language Can Accidentally Teach Them Social Stereotypes

By Matthew Warren

When we talk to children about the characteristics of boys and girls, our word choice and syntax can profoundly shape what they take away from the conversation. Even attempts to dispel stereotypes can backfire: as we recently reported, telling kids that girls are “as good as” boys at maths can actually leave them believing that boys are naturally better at the subject and that girls have to work harder.

Other work has shown that “generic” language can also perpetuate stereotypes: saying that boys “like to play football”, for instance, can make children believe that all boys like to play football, or that liking football is a fundamental part of being a boy.

Now a study in Psychological Science shows that when kids hear this kind of generic language, they don’t just make assumptions about the group that is mentioned — they also make inferences about unmentioned groups. That is, if children hear that boys like to play football, they might deduce that girls do not.

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Here’s What We Listen For When Deciding Whether A Speaker Is Lying Or Uncertain

By Emma Young

How do you know whether to trust what someone is telling you? There’s ongoing debate about which cues are reliable, and how good we are at recognising deception. But now a new paper in Nature Communications reveals that we reliably take a particular pattern of speech pitch, loudness and duration as indicating either that the person lying or that they’re unsure of what they’re saying — and that we do it without even being aware of what we’re tuning into.

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It Turns Out You Can Bullshit A Bullshitter After All

By Emma Young

You can’t bullshit a bullshitter. Well, that’s the saying — but is it true? Shane Littrell and colleagues at the University of Waterloo, Canada, set out to investigate. And in a new paper in the British Journal of Social Psychology they report that, in fact, people who bullshit more often in a bid to impress or persuade others are also more susceptible to bullshit themselves. The reason for this — also uncovered by the team — is truly fascinating.

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