A job interview in the MRI scanner: How does indirectness affect addressees and overhearers?

Bašnákova, J., Van Berkum, J. J. A., Weber, K., & Hagoort, P. (2015). A job interview in the MRI scanner: How does indirectness affect addressees and overhearers? Neuropsychologia, 76, 79-91. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2015.03.030.
In using language, people not only exchange information, but also navigate their social world – for example, they can express themselves indirectly to avoid losing face. In this functional magnetic resonance imaging study, we investigated the neural correlates of interpreting face-saving indirect replies, in a situation where participants only overheard the replies as part of a conversation between two other people, as well as in a situation where the participants were directly addressed themselves. We created a fictional job interview context where indirect replies serve as a natural communicative strategy to attenuate one’s shortcomings, and asked fMRI participants to either pose scripted questions and receive answers from three putative job candidates (addressee condition) or to listen to someone else interview the same candidates (overhearer condition). In both cases, the need to evaluate the candidate ensured that participants had an active interest in comprehending the replies. Relative to direct replies, face-saving indirect replies increased activation in medial prefrontal cortex, bilateral temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), bilateral inferior frontal gyrus and bilateral middle temporal gyrus, in active overhearers and active addressees alike, with similar effect size, and comparable to findings obtained in an earlier passive listening study (Bašnáková et al., 2013). In contrast, indirectness effects in bilateral anterior insula and pregenual ACC, two regions implicated in emotional salience and empathy, were reliably stronger in addressees than in active overhearers. Our findings indicate that understanding face-saving indirect language requires additional cognitive perspective-taking and other discourse-relevant cognitive processing, to a comparable extent in active overhearers and addressees. Furthermore, they indicate that face-saving indirect language draws upon affective systems more in addressees than in overhearers, presumably because the addressee is the one being managed by a face-saving reply. In all, face-saving indirectness provides a window on the cognitive as well as affect-related neural systems involved in human communication.
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