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Biased Communication: The Cognitive Pragmatics of Fallacies

Applicant Maillat Didier
Number 146751
Funding scheme Project funding (Div. I-III)
Research institution Département d'anglais et de slavistique Université de Fribourg
Institution of higher education University of Fribourg - FR
Main discipline Romance languages and literature
Start/End 01.03.2014 - 28.02.2017
Approved amount 350'781.00
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Keywords (10)

communication; argumentation theory; experimental methodology; pragmatics; cognitive biases; cognition; language; rhetoric; persuasion; manipulation

Lay Summary (French)

Lead
Dans ce projet, nous nous intéressons aux processus interprétatifs déclenchés par les arguments fallacieux, ainsi qu’à leur efficacité persuasive et manipulatoire, en nous fondant sur un modèle théorique de pragmatique cognitive.
Lay summary

Lead

Dans ce projet, nous nous intéressons aux processus interprétatifs déclenchés par les arguments fallacieux, ainsi qu’à leur efficacité persuasive et manipulatoire, en nous fondant sur un modèle théorique de pragmatique cognitive.

Objectifs

La pragmatique considère la communication humaine comme une activité cognitive qui tend à maximiser le rendement du processus interprétatif tout en diminuant simultanément la quantité de ressources cognitives nécessaires à sa mise-en-œuvre.

En bref, notre projet observe comment, au travers des argument fallacieux, un discours persuasif ou manipulatoire exploite certains biais cognitifs qui gênent le processus interprétatif et peuvent conduire à une interprétation sub-optimale, voire irrationnelle.

En ce sens l’objectif principal de notre projet est de recadrer le débat très ancien concernant la rhétorique des mouvements argumentatifs et manipulatoires dans une approche explicative qui utilise le cadre théorique pragmatique pour prédire certains fonctionnement interprétatifs humains en présence d’arguments fallacieux, tels que ad verecundiam, ad populum, ad hominem, ad baculum, homme-de-paille, ad consequentiam, etc.

Contexte Scientifique et Social

Cette recherche vise à comprendre les mécanismes cognitifs qui sous-tendent l’efficacité troublante des arguments ‘déficients’ – les fallacies – qui nous affectent dans notre vie quotidienne que cela soit au travers des discours politiques, de la publicité, ou d’une conversation entre amis. Elle se penche sur des phénomènes qui sont au cœur de la communication humaine, comme la crédulité et les stratégies manipulatoires

 

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 06.02.2014

Responsible applicant and co-applicants

Employees

Publications

Publication
She Said You Said I Saw It with My Own Eyes: a pragmatic account of commitment
Boulat Kira, Maillat Didier (2017), She Said You Said I Saw It with My Own Eyes: a pragmatic account of commitment, in Blochowiak J. (ed.), Springer, Dordrecht, 261-281.
Deceptive and uncooperative verbal communication
Oswald Steve, Maillat Didier, Saussure Louis de (2016), Deceptive and uncooperative verbal communication, in Saussure Louis de (ed.), Walter de Gruyter, Amsterdam, 509-534.
Repetition as a Context Selection Constraint: A Study in the Cognitive Underpinnings of Persuasion
Ozols Davis, Maillat Didier, Oswald Steve (2016), Repetition as a Context Selection Constraint: A Study in the Cognitive Underpinnings of Persuasion, in Mohammed Dima (ed.), College Publications, London, 547-566.
Manipulation et cognition: un modèle pragmatique
Maillat Didier (2014), Manipulation et cognition: un modèle pragmatique, in Herman T. (ed.), Lang, Bern, 69-88.
Présuppositions discursives, assertion d’arrière-plan et persuasion
Saussure Louis de (2014), Présuppositions discursives, assertion d’arrière-plan et persuasion, in Herman T. (ed.), Lang, Bern, 279-313.
Quand l’implicite devient explicite : d’un accident expérimental à une étude pilote
Drai Nathanaël, Saussure Louis de, Quand l’implicite devient explicite : d’un accident expérimental à une étude pilote, in Syntaxe & Sémantique, 17.
Relevance Theory
Maillat Didier, Relevance Theory, in Bruhn Jensen K. (ed.), Wiley - Blackwell, New York.
The Straw man fallacy as a prestige gaining device
de Saussure Louis, The Straw man fallacy as a prestige gaining device, in Herman Thierry (ed.), Springer, Dordrecht.

Collaboration

Group / person Country
Types of collaboration
Dr. Pascal Gygax Switzerland (Europe)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
- Publication
- Research Infrastructure
Dr. Napoleon Katsos Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Europe)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
- Research Infrastructure
- Exchange of personnel
Dr. Steve Oswald Switzerland (Europe)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
- Publication
Prof. Richard Breheny, UCL, London Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Europe)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
- Exchange of personnel
Dr. Ira Noveck France (Europe)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
- Research Infrastructure
- Exchange of personnel
Dr. Sandrine Zufferey, UniFR Switzerland (Europe)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
Goldsmiths University, London, Psychology Dept Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Europe)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
- Research Infrastructure
- Exchange of personnel
Dr. Chris Hart Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Europe)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
- Exchange of personnel

Scientific events

Active participation

Title Type of contribution Title of article or contribution Date Place Persons involved
ComCog 2017: Miscommunication - Getting Lost in Language(s) Talk given at a conference Implicit content, commitment and miscommunication 08.02.2017 Fribourg, Switzerland Drai Nathanaël;
ComCog 2017: Miscommunication - Getting Lost in Language(s) Talk given at a conference Ad populum and myside bias: an empirical investigation into argumentative fallacies 08.02.2017 Fribourg, Switzerland Ozols Davis;
Invited Speaker - Research Seminar Individual talk Les Manipulations du Discours de Séduction: Éclairage Pragmatique 06.10.2016 Aix-en-Provence/Marseille, France Maillat Didier;
Invited Speaker - Research Seminar - School of Languages and Cultures Individual talk Interpreting deceptive utterances: the pragmatics of verbal manipulation 02.09.2016 University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia Maillat Didier;
UQUAM Summer school of Reasoning Poster Cognitive pragmatics and persuasion: beyond the normative analysis of fallacies 20.06.2016 Montreal, Canada Ozols Davis;
Invited Speaker - 3rd International Workshop of Pragmatics Individual talk Discourse and persuasion: cognitive biases in language 06.04.2016 Federal University of Parana, Curitiba, Brazil de Saussure Louis;
Invited Speaker - Research Seminar - School of Linguistics & English Language Individual talk Context Selection Constraint: A pragmatic model for deceptive communication 15.11.2015 Bangor, Wales, Great Britain and Northern Ireland Maillat Didier;
ARGAGE Talk given at a conference Repetition as a context selection constraint: a study in the cognitive underpinnings of persuasion 09.09.2015 Lausanne, Switzerland de Saussure Louis; Ozols Davis; Maillat Didier;
European Conference on Argumentation Talk given at a conference Repetition as a context selection constraint: a study in the cognitive underpinnings of persuasion 09.06.2015 Lisbon, Portugal Drai Nathanaël; Ozols Davis; de Saussure Louis; Maillat Didier;
SWELL 15 Individual talk Repetition as a context selection constraint 20.03.2015 UniGE, Geneva, Switzerland Ozols Davis;
PragLab Workshop Individual talk Persuasion and cognitive pragmatics: the effectiveness of argumentative fallacies 15.12.2014 UniFR, Fribourg, Switzerland Ozols Davis;
UniBE - English Dept Research Colloquium Talk given at a conference Pragmatics of Manipulation 25.11.2014 Bern, Switzerland Maillat Didier;
American Pragmatics Association Talk given at a conference Funny Fallacies and Self-Defeating Deception: The pragmatics of deception in humour 18.10.2014 UCLA, USA, United States of America Maillat Didier;
LOT summer school Poster “Persuasion and cognitive pragmatics: the effectiveness of argumentative fallacies.” 16.06.2014 Radboud University, Nijmegen, Netherlands Ozols Davis;


Self-organised

Title Date Place
European Conference on Argumentation 20.06.2016 Fribourg, Switzerland
SWELL 2016 18.03.2016 Fribourg, UniFR, Switzerland
CRUS doctoral programme Language & Cognition 2015-16 01.06.2015 Fribourg, UniFR, Switzerland
BIAS Project Workshop 12.01.2015 CNRS Centre des Sciences Cognitives, Lyon, France
CRUS doctoral programme Language & Cognition 14-15 01.05.2014 Fribourg, Switzerland

Communication with the public

Communication Title Media Place Year
New media (web, blogs, podcasts, news feeds etc.) Post Fact Global Network website and google group International 2017
Talks/events/exhibitions Formation Continue UniFR Western Switzerland 2016

Awards

Title Year
Visiting Professor, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia - Spring Semester 2016

Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
130457 Mehrsprachigkeit und Lebensalter 01.10.2010 Sinergia
171822 The role of cognitive context in persuasion: language comprehension, information evaluation and motivated reasoning 01.03.2017 Doc.Mobility

Abstract

This interinstitutional project aims at investigating persuasive, and in particular manipulative, exploitation of otherwise efficient cognitive pragmatic processes of understanding. This research is anchored on the theoretical vantage point of pragmatics, which predominantly depend on models of understanding relying on frugal (rapid) but non-prudent (risky) processes of contextualisation and inference, which are compatible with spontaneous and automatic heuristics documented elsewhere in cognitive psychology; we draw upon recent developments in this framework aiming at bridging the explanatory gap between understanding and consenting through the notions of epistemic vigilance (Sperber & al. 2010), context-selection constraint (Maillat & Oswald 2009, 2011, Maillat 2006, forthcoming, and previous work by Saussure (2005) and others. The outcomes of the project, besides a better understanding of human sensitivity to fallacious arguments, lie on a more practical level in establishing better control procedures, that is, a critical mind, in the greater public. In this project, we approach the interpretative processes triggered by fallacious arguments and their persuasive and manipulative efficiency, from the theoretical vantage point of pragmatics which considers human communication as a cognitively driven activity which tries to maximise the output of the interpretative process and simultaneously minimise the amount of resources summoned during this same process. In brief, the current project looks at how, through fallacies, persuasive and manipulative discourse exploits cognitive biases which hinder this interpretative process and yield sub-optimal, or even irrational, outcomes.In doing so the main goal of this project is to bring the centuries old discussion of argumentative moves and fallacious moves in particular (van Eemeren & Grootendorst 2004, Hamblin 1970, Walton 1995, 1996, 2000, 2003, Woods & Walton 1982) into the domain of linguistic - more precisely pragmatic - theory in order to move away from a mostly descriptive approach to such discursive phenomena to an explanatory approach that will use the pragmatic theoretical framework in order to make predictions regarding the comprehension processes at work when an addressee interprets well-known fallacies, for instance the ad verecundiam, ad populum, ad hominem, ad baculum, strawman, ad consequentiam, etc. In this respect, this project fills an important part of the gap noted by Cummings (2004) who emphasizes the lack of and need for a theoretically grounded pragmatic account of argumentative moves.As explained above, this project tackles the depth and scope of pragmatic enrichment processes through contextual selection and modulation (disambiguation, reference assignment, semantic saturation of elliptic forms) in persuasive circumstances (Carston 2002, Sperber & Wilson 1995, Recanati 2007, 2010 and others). The purpose of the first level of investigation is therefore to further develop a model that can capture phenomena that pertain to biased communication - namely, fallacious arguments - and which is inscribed within the larger framework of pragmatics, thereby pursuing and extending the initial theoretical steps taken by Maillat & Oswald (2009, 2011) and providing an explanatory account which is cognitively grounded.The data used to test the various theoretical hypotheses is drawn from an evaluation of the comprehension processes triggered in an addressee by a subset of fallacious arguments. From a methodological point of view, the testing of our hypothesis is done in two distinct and complementary experimental strands (see Noveck & Sperber 2004, Pohl 2004, Sauerland & Yatsushiro 2009). Thus, the first line of investigation focuses on fallacies from the perspective of Context Selection Constraint (CSC; see Maillat 2006, forthcoming and Maillat & Oswald 2009, 2011, forthcoming) a pragmatic account of biased communication that was specifically developed to capture fallacious arguments. Specifically, the project experimentally test the biases theoretically predicted to be prompted by four fallacies: ad populum, ad verecundiam and ad baculum in interpretative processes. In doing so these fallacies are systematically and respectively related to the relevant cognitive counterparts the mere exposure and validity effects, epistemic vigilance, and somatic markers (see below for a discussion). Thus we use the insights of cognitive psychology in order to test empirically the validity of our predictions. Indeed, one of the original contributions of this project rests in its interdisciplinary effort to bring together the findings of scholars who investigated fallacies with those put forward by people who - following the ground breaking work of Tversky & Kahneman (1974, 1981), explained some of the most puzzling aspects of human understanding, judgment, and decision making (see Pohl (2004), or Gigerenzer (2008) for recent surveys). Interestingly, the relevance-theoretic framework in which the theory is couched stimulates and assumes the parallel between general cognitive processes and pragmatic processes as the latter are taken to exploit generally valid cognitive principles (see Sperber and Wilson 1995), thereby supporting the combined approach discussed above.The second line of investigation concerns the so-called strawman fallacy where the speaker gets attributed a commitment to a content she does not (intend to) convey. The research question concerns the efficiency of this fallacy in persuasion, an issue expanding far beyond the question of persuasion, having to do with the overall mechanism of pragmatic inference and of retractability (itself a criterion for implicitness in classical Gricean-style pragmatics). In argumentation theories, expressed contents are reputed public and scrutinisable, objective facts, a standpoint we regard as a rough oversimplification relying on an ill-informed theory of language understanding where the role of inference is null or light. Furthermore, the classical assumptions on this matter by Argumentation theories cannot provide any explanation for its common success otherwise than just through the notion of burden of proof switching. On the contrary, the tools designed within cognitive pragmatics and general principles of understanding in context, as they provide explanations for other types of miscommunication, such as misunderstanding or quiproquo, suggest a line of explanation whereby the strawman relies on the higher relevance of the attributed content with regard to the actually intended one. Empirical tests are proposed to evaluate the model.
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