Category: Language

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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Psychological Impact Of A Relationship Ending Is Reflected In Language Of Reddit Users Going Through Break-Ups

By Emily Reynolds

While some relationships are ended in the heat of the moment, for many the decision to break up with a partner involves several long, agonising weeks of weighing up various options. During that time, your attitudes and behaviours towards your partner may change — you might become colder or more distant, for example.

But what about your language? According to a new study, published in PNAS, the language we use on social media just prior to a break-up can offer a key insight into the emotional and cognitive impacts of a relationship ending. Looking at over a million posts from 6,803 Reddit users who had posted on r/BreakUps, the University of Texas at Austin team found changes in language that were so consistent they could even be found in posts completely unrelated to relationships at all.

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Climate Change Appeals May Be More Effective When They’re Pessimistic

By Emily Reynolds

There’s no getting around the fact that climate change is an existential crisis of the highest order — but how best to communicate that threat is unclear. Too much pessimism and people become paralysed with anxiety, pushing thoughts about the crisis away altogether. Too much optimism, on the other hand, can lead to complacency — if things are going to be okay, why would we feel the need to engage with what’s going on?

It’s this tension that Brandi S. Morris and colleagues from Aarhus University explore in a new study, published in Humanities and Social Sciences Communications. They suggest that climate change appeals with pessimistic endings could trigger higher engagement with the issue than those that end on an optimistic note.

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People Use Jargon To Make Up For Their Low Standing In A Group

By Matthew Warren

Why do business people promise to “reach out to KOLs” when they could simply say that they will contact leading experts? How come judges sometimes remark that they will hear trials “in-camera” instead of just “in private”?

As infuriating as it can be, jargon actually performs a social function. By definition, jargon refers to language used by a particular group of people, in the place of more accessible words and phrases. And although that can make it frustrating and confusing for people not in that group, if you are a member then it can help signal to others that you belong. People may also use jargon as a way of displaying their expertise.

But according to a series of studies published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, those who are of low status within a group are also predisposed towards jargon-filled language. Zachariah Brown at Columbia University and colleagues found that these people appear to want to compensate for their lowly position by using language that is often associated with high status.

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Gruesome Descriptions Can Make Crimes Seem Worse — But Judges And Lawyers Are Immune To This Bias

By Matthew Warren

We often like to think of ourselves as impartial decision-makers — but of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Our day-to-day thoughts and behaviours are biased in all kinds of ways. But is the same true for people in the legal profession, which prides itself on its supposed objectivity and fairness?

According to a new study in Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, judges and lawyers may be immune to at least some of the biases that affect the rest of us. In particular, their judgements seem less prone to the biasing effects of emotive language.

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