You are here: Home Publications Never say no… How the brain interprets the pregnant pause in conversation.

Never say no… How the brain interprets the pregnant pause in conversation.

Bögels, S., Kendrick, K. H., & Levinson, S. C. (2015). Never say no… How the brain interprets the pregnant pause in conversation. PLoS One, 10(12): e0145474. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0145474.
In conversation, negative responses to invitations, requests, offers, and the like are more likely to occur with a delay – conversation analysts talk of them as dispreferred. Here we examine the contrastive cognitive load ‘yes’ and ‘no’ responses make, either when relatively fast (300 ms after question offset) or delayed (1000 ms). Participants heard short dialogues contrasting in speed and valence of response while having their EEG recorded. We found that a fast ‘no’ evokes an N400-effect relative to a fast ‘yes’; however this contrast disappeared in the delayed responses. 'No' responses however elicited a late frontal positivity both if they were fast and if they were delayed. We interpret these results as follows: a fast ‘no’ evoked an N400 because an immediate response is expected to be positive – this effect disappears as the response time lengthens because now in ordinary conversation the probability of a ‘no’ has increased. However, regardless of the latency of response, a ‘no’ response is associated with a late positivity, since a negative response is always dispreferred. Together these results show that negative responses to social actions exact a higher cognitive load, but especially when least expected, in immediate response.

Supplementary materials

About MPI

This is the MPI

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.


Street address
Wundtlaan 1
6525 XD Nijmegen
The Netherlands

Mailing address
P.O. Box 310
6500 AH Nijmegen
The Netherlands

Phone:   +31-24-3521911
Fax:        +31-24-3521213

Public Outreach Officer
Charlotte Horn