What drives successful verbal communication?

De Boer, M., Toni, I., & Willems, R. M. (2013). What drives successful verbal communication? Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7: 622. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00622.
There is a vast amount of potential mappings between behaviors and intentions in communication: a behavior can indicate a multitude of different intentions, and the same intention can be communicated with a variety of behaviors. Humans routinely solve these many-to-many referential problems when producing utterances for an Addressee. This ability might rely on social cognitive skills, for instance, the ability to manipulate unobservable summary variables to disambiguate ambiguous behavior of other agents (“mentalizing”) and the drive to invest resources into changing and understanding the mental state of other agents (“communicative motivation”). Alternatively, the ambiguities of verbal communicative interactions might be solved by general-purpose cognitive abilities that process cues that are incidentally associated with the communicative interaction. In this study, we assess these possibilities by testing which cognitive traits account for communicative success during a verbal referential task. Cognitive traits were assessed with psychometric scores quantifying motivation, mentalizing abilities, and general-purpose cognitive abilities, taxing abstract visuo-spatial abilities. Communicative abilities of participants were assessed by using an on-line interactive task that required a speaker to verbally convey a concept to an Addressee. The communicative success of the utterances was quantified by measuring how frequently a number of Evaluators would infer the correct concept. Speakers with high motivational and general-purpose cognitive abilities generated utterances that were more easily interpreted. These findings extend to the domain of verbal communication the notion that motivational and cognitive factors influence the human ability to rapidly converge on shared communicative innovations.
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