Event Abstract

The Aging Factor in Presupposition Processing

  • 1 Università di Genova, Department of Educational Sciences - Psychology Unit, Italy

Introduction The language ability is known to decline across the life span and it has been shown that aging in healthy speakers compromises language comprehension in three main aspects: processing speed, inhibition of irrelevant information and working memory (Myerson et al., 1992; Stine & Hindman, 1994; Tun & Wingfield, 1999). In the psycholinguistic literature, the decline of language ability with aging has been studied at the syntactic, phonological and semantic level. Much less is known on the effect of aging in pragmatic processing, which has been studied mainly in relation with two typical pragmatic processes: the turn-taking system (Murphy et al. 2006) and figurative language (Byrd et al. 1991). Apparently, what is still missing is a research line on the effect of age on the processing of presuppositions (PSPs), namely the information implicitly communicated as taken for granted, which are another core level of pragmatic processing. The present work takes a first step towards a psycholinguistic investigation on the potential impact of the aging factor on the processing of PSPs. In particular, we address three research questions: (i) does the processing of PSPs in online language comprehension involve higher processing costs with healthy older adults as compared to younger speakers? (ii) Does the aging factor affect the ability to recover from the discourse mental model information introduced as presupposed? (iii) Does the aging factor affect the ability of updating the discourse mental model with presupposed information? The Experiment Materials Sixty short stories in Italian containing a presupposition (plus 20 filler stories) were created. Each story was composed of 2 context sentences and 1 target sentence and was presented in condition of satisfaction (SAT) or accommodation (ACC). In context sentence 1, the presupposed content was either made explicit (i.e. SAT) or did not satisfy the presupposition of the target sentence, hence requiring accommodation (i.e. ACC) (e.g. Enrico and Marta will have dinner in a pub with a great pianist / in a very suggestive pub tonight). Context sentence 2 was kept constant across conditions (e.g. They have chosen this pub to celebrate their first wedding anniversary), as was the target sentence which contained a presupposition trigger (e.g. After the dinner, because of the anniversary, the pianist of the pub will sing a serenade). Two types of triggers were used: Definite Descriptions (DD, N:30, e.g. ‘The pianist of the pub’) and Change of State Verbs (CSV, N:30; e.g. ‘to give up’). Each story was followed by 3 questions: a target question verifying the content of the presupposition activated by the target sentence and two distractor questions. Methods and procedure In a self-paced reading times paradigm (cf. Tiemann et al. 2011), 21 young adults attending the first year of a BA programme (age range:20-26, M: 22.47; years of schooling: 14) and 20 high-school-graduated elderly adults (age range: 60-69, M: 63.6; years of schooling:13) read the stories and answered the 3 true/false questions. Context sentences were presented as a whole on the screen. The target sentences were presented word-by-word. In addition, a Verbal Working Memory Ability test was administered to all participants. We collected: (i) participants’ word-by-word reading times on the target sentences; (ii) response times to the target questions, and (iii) accuracy (i.e. correct responses to target questions). Statistical analyses were carried out by Linear-Mixed Models (LMM). Main age-related Results Word-by-word Reading times (e.g. sentence region: T1= pianist, T2+1= will; see Figure 1). T1: all participants were slower in ACC than in SAT (F(1, 55.66)= 4.27; p<0.05) and even more so with DDs than CSVs (F(1, 55.53)= 7.97; p<0.001). T2+1: processing a PSP was costlier for elderly than for younger adults (F(1, 36.97)=10.51; p<0.001), with elderly participants exhibiting longer reading times for CSVs than for DDs (F(1, 1074.16)=5.29; p<0.05). Response times and Accuracy Statistics on response times for the true/false task (Figure 2) revealed a significant GroupXConditionXTrigger Type interaction (F(1, 1088.77)=14.05; p<0.0001), with longer response times for elderly subjects when recovering of an accommodated presupposition triggered by DDs was required. Statistics on the accuracy data revealed no group-related effects. Working Memory Statistics on WM test scores revealed that WM is significantly affected by age (W=59; p<0.0001), with lower test scores for elderly (Mean: 0.36; SD: 0.23) than younger (Mean: 0.62; SD: 0.20) participants. A LMM model conducted on response times to verification sentences with participants’ WM scores as a predictor revealed that WM differently accounts for the recovering of information triggered by CSVs in condition of accommodation depending on age group (CondXGroupXTriggerXWM: F(1, 881.91)=4.68; p<0.05): even for elderly participants with higher WM scores response times were longer (β=1237.840; t=1.755) than the younger participants, for whom the higher the WM scores were, the faster the response times (β= -115.254; t= -0.355). Discussion Data collected show that aging affects PSPs processing. First, in online language comprehension older adults exhibit higher processing costs with CVSs (Reading times), presumably because they involve a more demanding mental representation where the representation of temporally displaced events has to be included (Domaneschi et al. 2014). It is possible that such more complex mental representation required a surplus of cognitive resources that has made the reading task costlier for older adults. Second, since PSPs constitute a condition for the understanding and appropriateness of an utterance, updating the mental discourse model with presupposed information does not seem to decline across the life span (Accuracy). Rather, what seems to decline is the ability to recover from the discourse mental model information introduced in the context as presupposed (Response times). Such a recovering operation requires in fact the linguistic information to be retained in working memory, notably affected by aging (e.g. Cappell et al., 2010). Finally, the decrease in working memory ability with aging affects older adults’ ability to recover from the mental discourse the presupposed information (LMM with WM scores). Beyond other more explored levels of pragmatic processing, the decline with age of working memory ability seems to affect PSPs processing and can partially account for differences in presupposition performance according to age. [INSERT HERE FIGURES 1 and 2]

Figure 1
Figure 2


Byrd, M. (1991). Adult age differences in the ability to read and remember metaphor, Educ Gerontol, 17(4), 297–313.

Cappell, K. A., Gmeindl, L., and Reuter-Lorenz, P. A. (2010). Age differences in prefontal recruitment during verbal working memory maintenance depend on memory load. Cortex 46, 462–473.

Domaneschi, F., Carrea, E., Penco, C., & Greco, A. (2014). The cognitive load of presupposition triggers: mandatory and optional repairs in presupposition failure, Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 29(1), 136-146.

Myerson, J., Ferraro, F. R., Hale, S., & Lima, S. D. (1992). General slowing in semantic priming and word recognition, Psychology and Aging, 7, 257–270.

Murphy, D. R., Daneman, M., & Schneider, B.A. (2006). Why do older adults have difficulty following conversations?, Psychol Aging, 21(1), 49–61.

Stine, E. L., & Hindman, J. (1994). Age differences in reading time allocation for propositionally dense sentences, Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 1, 2–16.

Tiemann, S., Schmid, M., Bade, N., Rolke, B., Hertrich, I., Ackermann, H., Knapp, J., & Beck, S. (2011). Psycholinguistic evidence for presuppositions: on-line and off-line data. In I. Reich et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Sinn & Bedeutung, 15 (pp. 581-595). Saarbrücken: Saarland University Press.

Tun, P. A., & Wingfield, A. (1997). Language and communication: Fundamentals of speech communication and language processing in old age. In Fisk, A. D. & Rogers, W. A. (Ed.), Handbook of human factors and the older adult, 125–149. San Diego, CA: Academic.

Keywords: Presupposition Processing, Aging, pragmatics, individual differences, working memory

Conference: XPRAG.it Behavioral and Neural Evidence on Pragmatic Processing , Genoa, Italy, 10 Jun - 11 Jun, 2017.

Presentation Type: Oral Presentation

Topic: Processing of presuppositions

Citation: Di Paola S and Domaneschi F (2019). The Aging Factor in Presupposition Processing. Front. Psychol. Conference Abstract: XPRAG.it Behavioral and Neural Evidence on Pragmatic Processing . doi: 10.3389/conf.fpsyg.2017.71.00013

Copyright: The abstracts in this collection have not been subject to any Frontiers peer review or checks, and are not endorsed by Frontiers. They are made available through the Frontiers publishing platform as a service to conference organizers and presenters.

The copyright in the individual abstracts is owned by the author of each abstract or his/her employer unless otherwise stated.

Each abstract, as well as the collection of abstracts, are published under a Creative Commons CC-BY 4.0 (attribution) licence (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) and may thus be reproduced, translated, adapted and be the subject of derivative works provided the authors and Frontiers are attributed.

For Frontiers’ terms and conditions please see https://www.frontiersin.org/legal/terms-and-conditions.

Received: 09 May 2017; Published Online: 25 Jan 2019.

* Correspondence: Dr. Simona Di Paola, Università di Genova, Department of Educational Sciences - Psychology Unit, Genoa, Italy, simona.dipaola@edu.unige.it

© 2007 - 2019 Frontiers Media S.A. All Rights Reserved