Event Abstract

Sincere, deceitful and ironic communicative intentions: the role of Theory of Mind, executive functions and inferential processes

  • 1 University of Turin, Department of Psychology, Italy

In the pragmatic domain, a well-known notion concerns the ability to infer a speaker’s intended meaning, which allows a partner to correctly distinguish from among several possible and alternative interpretations of the same speech act. Inferential ability refers to the human capacity to bridge the gap between what a speaker literally states and what s/he intends to communicate (Grice, 1989). Regarding the inferential model, several authors have elaborated and proposed theoretical explanations, focusing on which inferential and cognitive processes are necessary to bridge the gap between what a speaker literally states and what s/he intends to communicate (Austin, 1962; Searle,1969; Grice 1989; Sperber & Wilson, 1986/1995). Within this theoretical framework, the Cognitive Pragmatic theory (Airenti, et al.1993; Bara, 2010) analyzed the cognitive processes involved in the comprehension and production of a communicative act, which is uttered with different communicative intentions, i.e., sincere, deceitful or ironic. In the comprehension of sincere communicative acts, what the speaker says is in line with his private knowledge. In terms of the cognitive processes involved, this merely requires the partner to refer it to the background knowledge shared with interlocutors. A more difficult case involves the comprehension of a deceitful communicative act. In terms of deceit, the speaker’s communicative intention is in conflict with his private knowledge, although it does not contrast with the knowledge he shares with his partner. In understanding deceit, the partner has to manage the difference between what is expressed and what the actor privately entertains. This makes a deceitful communicative act more difficult to entertain than a sincere one. With irony, the speaker’s communicative intention is again in conflict with his private knowledge, as in the previous case, but it also contradicts the knowledge shared with his partner. This makes an ironic communicative act more difficult to entertain than a deceitful one (see also Bara, 2010). The existence of conflicts between the speaker’s private knowledge and what is shared with the interlocutor, as well as the inferential ability necessary to solve them, determines the difficulty in the comprehension and production of communicative acts, which are expressed with different communicative intentions (Bucciarelli et al., 2003). The existence of an increasing trend regarding the difficulty in comprehending and producing sincere, deceitful and ironic communication acts has been pointed out in studies with children (Bosco et al., 2013), patients with schizophrenia (Colle et al., 2013) patients with brain injury, i.e., TBI (Angeleri et al., 2008), left (Gabbatore et al., 2014) and right brain damage (Parola et al., 2016), and autism (Angeleri et al., 2016). However, a possible alternative explanation is that theory of mind (ToM) is a best cognitive factor in explaining the ability to deal with deceit (Chandler et a. 1989) and irony (Happé, 1993), and that, more specifically, second-order ToM explains the ability to discriminate between deceit and irony (Wimmer & Leekman, 1991). In order to investigate this issue, Bosco and Gabbatore (2017) recently used the linguistic and extralinguistic (non-verbal) scales of the Assessment Battery for Communication (Angeleri et al., 2012; Bosco et al., 2012) to investigate the relationship between the increasing children’s ability to understand and produce sincere, deceitful and ironic communicative acts and their first- and second-order ToM. The results indicated that first-order ToM plays a causal role in explaining children’s performance in handling sincere and deceitful speech acts, but not irony. In particular, the authors detected no specific role for second-order ToM. Furthermore, ToM only partially explains the observed increasing trend in the difficulty regarding children’s pragmatic performance. Bosco et al. (2017), also using the ABaCo battery, investigated patients with traumatic brain injury and reached a similar conclusion. The authors investigated patients’ ability to comprehend and produce sincere, ironic and deceitful communicative acts, together with a set of cognitive tasks, i.e., concerning attention, long-term memory, executive functions (EF, working memory, planning and cognitive flexibility), and ToM tasks. The results confirmed the expected trend regarding the difficulty in solving the pragmatic tasks under investigation. Furthermore, EF only has a significant effect on the comprehension of linguistic irony, while ToM plays a significant role in determining patients’ performance in the extralinguistic production of sincere and deceitful communicative acts, the linguistic and extralinguistic comprehension of deceit, and the linguistic production of irony. Again, ToM alone seems to be unable to explain the increasing trend in the difficulty among patients in solving the different kinds of communicative acts being investigated; specifically, it is not able to explain the difficulty to deal with deceit vs. irony. Finally, Bosco et al. (2017) used functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate, in healthy participants, whether common or different neural circuits underlie the comprehension of the same communicative speech act, which is uttered with the intention of being sincere, deceitful or ironic. The results showed that both common and specific areas of activation were involved in the recognition of a specific task. More in detail, the comprehension of the same literal speech act, proffered with the intention to be deceitful vs. ironic, specifically activates the left middle temporal gyrus, which appears to play a specific role in discriminating between the speaker’s two different communicative intentions (deceitful or ironic) based on what is, or is not, shared with the participants in the communicative interaction. To conclude, when globally considered, all these studies confirm the importance of analyzing in addition to cognitive functions, such as EF and ToM, also the role played by the inferential process, in order to better investigate pragmatic phenomena, such as deceit and irony. In addition, its highlight the value of investigating pragmatic ability using a perspective derived from cognitive science (Bara, 1995), which takes into account the cognitive process underlying healthy adults’ performance, as well as how such processes develop in infancy or are impaired in clinical populations.


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Keywords: pragmatics, inferences, development, Theory of Mind, executive functions, irony, deceit

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

Presentation Type: Oral Presentation

Topic: Patients studies on pragmatic abilities

Citation: Bosco FM (2019). Sincere, deceitful and ironic communicative intentions: the role of Theory of Mind, executive functions and inferential processes
. Front. Psychol. Conference Abstract: XPRAG.it Behavioral and Neural Evidence on Pragmatic Processing . doi: 10.3389/conf.fpsyg.2017.71.00008

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Received: 10 May 2017; Published Online: 25 Jan 2019.

* Correspondence: Prof. Francesca M Bosco, University of Turin, Department of Psychology, Turin, 10132, Italy, francesca.bosco@unito.it