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Mood and heuristic anticipation in language comprehension


Van Berkum,  Jos J. A.
Neurobiology of Language Group, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Language in Action , MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;


De Goede,  Dieuwke
Neurobiology of Language Group, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;


Van Alphen,  Petra M.
Neurobiology of Language Group, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Van Berkum, J. J. A., De Goede, D., Van Alphen, P. M., Mulder, E., Blokland, Y., & Kerstholt, J. (2009). Mood and heuristic anticipation in language comprehension. Poster presented at The Third Biennial Meeting of Experimental Pragmatics 2009 (XPRAG-2009), Lyon.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-0013-3D28-C
Theories in pragmatics usually focus on making sense of what is said, not on what will be said. However, the speed with which language users successfully make sense of rather underspecified utterances suggests that they are in fact doing some preparatory thinking (e.g., Levinson, 2000). In the talk, we first review some ERP evidence showing that readers and listeners indeed routinely look ahead. Then, we examine whether some of this heuristic look-ahead can be made to disappear if the reader's mood is changed from a happy to a sad one. Background to the latter is that in many other domains of cognition, people in a happy mood are more inclined to rely on heuristic processing strategies than people in a sad mood (Clore & Huntsinger, 2007). If mood affects the use of heuristic look-ahead in language comprehension as well, this would show that language processing -- a classic example of 'cold' cognitive computation -- is not immune to affective variables, and that some aspects of its operation selectively depend on a contextual factor that has hitherto been ignored. In constructions like "Joe feared Sarah because...", verbs like "feared" heuristically lead readers to expect more information about the person who is feared (in this case, Sarah). This so-called implicit causality bias can be so strong that gender-marked pronouns that subsequently disconfirm the expectation ("he" in example 1b) actually elicit a morpho-syntactic P600 effect (Van Berkum et al., 2007), indicating that such pronouns are briefly taken to be structurally problematic. We reasoned that if people process information more heuristically in a happy mood than in a sad mood in language comprehension as well, a change in mood should also modulate the size of this heuristics-based P600 effect. In a two-session EEG experiment, we used short film clips to manipulate the mood of participants just before they read short stories in which verbbased expectations were sometimes confirmed (1a) or disconfirmed (1b) with a gendermarked pronoun. Preliminary data analysis suggests that when readers were in a happy mood, bias-inconsistent pronouns elicited a clear P600 effect, as in the Van Berkum et al. (2007) ERP study. However, when the same readers were in a sad mood, no such P600 effect was observed. Also, and importantly, standard morpho-syntactic subject-verb agreement violations (2b), included in the study as a non-heuristic 'algorithmic' processing control, elicited a clear P600 effect in either mood. Our findings support the general idea that a happy mood increases the degree of heuristic processing, and they reveal that such mood effects also percolate into basic language comprehension mechanisms. A change in mood has selective consequences for language processing: whereas at least some heuristics-based conceptual anticipation can be abolished in a sad mood, more algorithmic syntactic parsing mechanisms continue to do their job. These findings testify to the importance of studying the language-affect interface: it is not just that language, once understood, can change one's feelings and emotions -- the latter can selectively alter the mechanisms by which we come to understand language in the first place.