[PS-1.2] A pragmatic account of implicit causality

van den Hoven, E. & Ferstl, E.

University of Freiburg

In sentences like the following, the preferred interpretation of the pronoun 'she' depends on the matrix verb: 'Mary frightened/criticized Sue because she was unpredictable.' This phenomenon is known as implicit causality (IC). Whereas recent studies on IC attribute causality biases to lexical semantics, we introduce a pragmatic account of IC. On our account, causality biases are due to inferences to the stereotype. That is, verbs do not entail anything about likely explanations. Rather, likely explanations are inferred. In a stereotypical situation, A may criticize B because she thinks B did something wrong, but this is a defeasible inference, unlike the requirement that A communicates something. Hence there is no inconsistency in the sentence 'Mary criticized John, although she knew he didn't do anything wrong.', like there is in the sentence '??Mary criticized John, although she didn't communicate anything.' The pragmatic account predicts a strong influence of discourse context. Data from a story completion study support this account, showing that IC biases can be altered with a discourse context that runs counter to the stereotype (e.g. A has reason to be jealous prior to criticizing B). Data for a follow-up visual world study investigating the online comprehension process are pending.