Event Abstract

The evolution and processing of implicits between effort and attention

  • 1 Università Roma Tre, Dipartimento di Lingue, Letterature e Culture Straniere, Italy

Implicits are intensely used in persuasive texts (Ducrot 1972, Kerbrat-Orecchioni 1986, Lombardi Vallauri 1995, Sbisà 2007, Saussure 2013, Lombardi Vallauri & Masia 2014). Examples will be shown from commercial advertising and political propaganda for what may be called (Lombardi Vallauri 2016) implicits of content (implicatures and vague expressions), where some content is conveyed by the linguistic message though not overtly encoded, and implicits of responsibility (presuppositions and topicalizations), where the content is overtly encoded but the source does not present herself as responsible for its introduction, attributing previous knowledge of it by the addressees, and thus leaving her responsibility for it unexpressed. Focusing on the implicits of responsibility, the persuasive effectiveness of presuppositions will be explained as stemming from the fact that when some info is presented as already part of the common ground it is more likely for it to be processed less attentively. In particular, it will undergo lesser critical judgment, resulting in more probable acceptance of doubtful contents. An evolutionary account for this hypothesis will be proposed. Topics will be regarded as a “weak” version of presuppositions in this respect, appealing to activation in Short-Term Memory at utterance time rather than to previous storage in Long-Term Memory. It will be argued that presuppositions and topics may have developed their persuasive function as a sort of “exaptation” from previous, more innocent functions, as summarized here: Function 1: to save the addressee the superfluous effort which would result from processing an already shared content by devoting to it the same resources as if it was new. Function 2: to save the addressee the superfluous effort of thoroughly processing some content that can receive minor attention without any damage to the comprehension of the message. Function 3: to prevent the addressee from becoming completely aware of the details of some false or doubtful content, lest he may cognitively challenge and reject it. In a strong version of the hypothesis, these three functions may be regarded as following each other in time, during (proto)language evolution. In a weaker version, they are just logically ordered. In any case, the hypothesis on the one hand adopts and on the other hand confirms the idea that language must provide means by which speakers can instruct addressees to devote lesser effort to some parts of utterances (Givón 2002, Lombardi Vallauri & Masia 2015), in order for utterance processing to be possible at the usual fast pace. This assumption will be matched with what is known about automatic and controlled processing (Schneider & Shiffrin 1977, 1984; Schneider & Chein 2003), arguing that presuppositions and topics may be candidates to being processed more automatically than fully asserted contents, resulting just in lesser effort for true contents, and in easier smuggling of doubtful contents. This seems confirmed by many behavioural experiments (Langford & Holmes 1979, Erickson & Mattson 1981, Irwin et al. 1982, Bredart & Modolo 1988, Birch & Rayner 1997, Sturt et al. 2004, Loftus 2005, Tiemann et al. 2011, Schwarz & Tiemann 2014, Schwarz 2015), whose results show that presuppositions and topics are processed faster than assertions, and their contents’ faults are less likely to be noticed. However, neurolinguistic (typically, EEG) evidence does not confirm. New contents seem to be processed with greater effort when presented as presupposed or topicalized, eliciting major N400 and P600 effects as compared to assertions (La Rocca et al. 2016, Masia et al. 2017). This raises the further hypothesis that processing efforts measured so far are not the correlates of critical attention. As it is already quite established in the literature, N400 and P600 probably reveal the functions of (respectively) linking contents to the previous context and updating the context set. Critical judgment may be carried out by brain processes whose measurable correlates have not been directly measured yet. In this perspective, it will be suggested that effort devoted to linking and updating may be even thought of as distracting attention from critical evaluation. This seems to match quite well with the hypothesis of the “Now-or-Never Bottleneck”, put forward by Christiansen & Chater (2016), according to which resources in language processing are so constrained that «if the input is not processed immediately, new information will quickly overwrite it.” So, distracting the addressee from proper evaluation of some information at the very moment it is presented, effectively results in its never being properly evaluated. And, if thorough processing is hindered by some other simultaneous and concurrent effort, such as e.g. the accommodation of a presupposition or a Topic with new content, full critical evaluation of that content is even less likely to take place.


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Keywords: linguistic implicits, presuppositions, topics, Persuasive language, language evolution, language processing, Event-related potentials, linking and updating, Now-or-never bottleneck

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: Lombardi Vallauri E (2019). The evolution and processing of implicits between effort and attention. Front. Psychol. Conference Abstract: XPRAG.it Behavioral and Neural Evidence on Pragmatic Processing . doi: 10.3389/conf.fpsyg.2017.71.00012

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Received: 13 Apr 2017; Published Online: 25 Jan 2019.

* Correspondence: Prof. Edoardo Lombardi Vallauri, Università Roma Tre, Dipartimento di Lingue, Letterature e Culture Straniere, Roma, RM, 00146, Italy, edoardo.lombardivallauri@uniroma3.it