Understanding how pragmatic factors influence ambiguity in the production and comprehension of health information

Clelland, Harry Thomas (2022) Understanding how pragmatic factors influence ambiguity in the production and comprehension of health information. Doctoral thesis, Northumbria University.

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Language is inherently ambiguous. Words or phrases often share multiple possible meanings, and changes to the circumstances of a conversation can alter how a person chooses to produce (and interpret) language. This is especially important in the context of health communication because talking about human health is sensitive, increasing the potential for ambiguity (and therefore misunderstandings). This thesis examined pragmatic (contextual) factors that influence the production and comprehension of ambiguous language within a health context. To achieve this goal, we applied the principles of Experimental Pragmatics by manipulating the social circumstances surrounding three ambiguous language forms. Specifically, we examined the use and interpretation of (1) Uncertainty Terms (e.g., ‘perhaps’ or ‘maybe’), (2) Quantifiers (e.g., ‘some’ or ‘1-in-X’) and (3) Generic generalisations (e.g., ‘music helps old people’). Across eight pre-registered Open Science experiments (N = 4143), we found that contextual factors significantly affect language production and comprehension. Speakers will be subtly indirect when delivering uncertain threatening news, rather than using explicit uncertainty terms such as ‘possibly’. Speakers also use quantifiers such as ‘some’ or ‘many’ to manage threat, by downplaying the likelihood they communicate. The ‘1-in-X’ bias and the severity bias cause overestimations of health risk, but they do so independently. Severe outcomes are not considered more likely to occur when they are qualified with a proportional quantifier (e.g., ‘a few’). Finally, universal generics (e.g., ‘supplement improves function in men’) are inviting to writers motivated by appeal, but they risk exaggerating the importance and generality of research findings. The use and interpretation of speech is governed to a large extent by context, so our findings carry implications for effectively communicating health information to the public. The delicate nature of discussing human health offers an opportune window into the psychology of language.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Uncontrolled Keywords: experimental pragmatics, psycholinguistics, uncertainty, quantifiers, generics
Subjects: B900 Others in Subjects allied to Medicine
C800 Psychology
Department: Faculties > Health and Life Sciences > Psychology
University Services > Graduate School > Doctor of Philosophy
Depositing User: John Coen
Date Deposited: 15 Jun 2023 07:18
Last Modified: 15 Jun 2023 08:00
URI: https://nrl.northumbria.ac.uk/id/eprint/51589

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