Priming implicit communication

Rees, A. & Bott, L.

Cardiff University

Speakers must choose whether to communicate explicitly, and say exactly what they mean, or implicitly, and let the listener do the work. We investigate whether this choice can be primed (e.g., Bock, 1987).
Participants engaged in a communication game in which they took turns with a confederate describing and identifying a card. Speakers could be implicit, requiring the addressee to use a conversational implicature (Grice, 1975), or explicit. The DV was whether the participant produced an implicit or an explicit construction. Experiment 1 used a between-subject manipulation, in which a confederate described target cards using either explicit or implicit expressions. Participants in the explicit condition used more explicit expressions than those in the implicit condition. Experiment 2 manipulated the priming within-subject and found similar results.
Our findings demonstrate that the decision to communicate implicitly depends on the style embraced by the conversational partner. The only previous suggestion about why people communicate implicitly is that they do so for reasons of politeness (Brown & Levinson, 1978) and our results cannot be explained in this way. We suggest our effects arose because we primed abstract, meaning-based structures associated with conversational implicatures, similar to syntactic frames (Branigan & Pickering, 1998).