The Division of Labor in Communication: Speakers Help Listeners Account for Asymmetries in Visual Perspective

Cognitive Science 45 (3):e12926 (2021)
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Recent debates over adults' theory of mind use have been fueled by surprising failures of perspective-taking in communication, suggesting that perspective-taking may be relatively effortful. Yet adults routinely engage in effortful processes when needed. How, then, should speakers and listeners allocate their resources to achieve successful communication? We begin with the observation that the shared goal of communication induces a natural division of labor: The resources one agent chooses to allocate toward perspective-taking should depend on their expectations about the other's allocation. We formalize this idea in a resource-rational model augmenting recent probabilistic weighting accounts with a mechanism for (costly) control over the degree of perspective-taking. In a series of simulations, we first derive an intermediate degree of perspective weighting as an optimal trade-off between expected costs and benefits of perspective-taking. We then present two behavioral experiments testing novel predictions of our model. In Experiment 1, we manipulated the presence or absence of occlusions in a director–matcher task. We found that speakers spontaneously modulated the informativeness of their descriptions to account for “known unknowns” in their partner's private view, reflecting a higher degree of speaker perspective-taking than previously acknowledged. In Experiment 2, we then compared the scripted utterances used by confederates in prior work with those produced in interactions with unscripted directors. We found that confederates were systematically less informative than listeners would initially expect given the presence of occlusions, but listeners used violations to adaptively make fewer errors over time. Taken together, our work suggests that people are not simply “mindblind”; they use contextually appropriate expectations to navigate the division of labor with their partner. We discuss how a resource-rational framework may provide a more deeply explanatory foundation for understanding flexible perspective-taking under processing constraints.



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Robert Hawkins
University of Edinburgh