Sikos, Les; Venhuizen, Noortje; Drenhaus, Heiner; Crocker, Matthew W.

Reevaluating pragmatic reasoning in language games

PLOS ONE, 2021.

The results of a highly influential study that tested the predictions of the Rational Speech Act (RSA) model suggest that (a) listeners use pragmatic reasoning in one-shot web-based referential communication games despite the artificial, highly constrained, and minimally interactive nature of the task, and (b) that RSA accurately captures this behavior. In this work, we reevaluate the contribution of the pragmatic reasoning formalized by RSA in explaining listener behavior by comparing RSA to a baseline literal listener model that is only driven by literal word meaning and the prior probability of referring to an object. Across three experiments we observe only modest evidence of pragmatic behavior in one-shot web-based language games, and only under very limited circumstances. We find that although RSA provides a strong fit to listener responses, it does not perform better than the baseline literal listener model. Our results suggest that while participants playing the role of the Speaker are informative in these one-shot web-based reference games, participants playing the role of the Listener only rarely take this Speaker behavior into account to reason about the intended referent. In addition, we show that RSA’s fit is primarily due to a combination of non-pragmatic factors, perhaps the most surprising of which is that in the majority of conditions that are amenable to pragmatic reasoning, RSA (accurately) predicts that listeners will behave non-pragmatically. This leads us to conclude that RSA’s strong overall correlation with human behavior in one-shot web-based language games does not reflect listener’s pragmatic reasoning about informative speakers.