Quantifying the interplay of conversational devices in building mutual understanding

Dideriksen, C., Christiansen, M. H., Tylén, K., Dingemanse, M., & Fusaroli, R. (2023). Quantifying the interplay of conversational devices in building mutual understanding. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 152(3), 864-889. doi:10.1037/xge0001301.
Humans readily engage in idle chat and heated discussions and negotiate tough joint decisions without ever having to think twice about how to keep the conversation grounded in mutual understanding. However, current attempts at identifying and assessing the conversational devices that make this possible are fragmented across disciplines and investigate single devices within single contexts. We present a comprehensive conceptual framework to investigate conversational devices, their relations, and how they adjust to contextual demands. In two corpus studies, we systematically test the role of three conversational devices: backchannels, repair, and linguistic entrainment. Contrasting affiliative and task-oriented conversations within participants, we find that conversational devices adaptively adjust to the increased need for precision in the latter: We show that low-precision devices such as backchannels are more frequent in affiliative conversations, whereas more costly but higher-precision mechanisms, such as specific repairs, are more frequent in task-oriented conversations. Further, task-oriented conversations involve higher complementarity of contributions in terms of the content and perspective: lower semantic entrainment and less frequent (but richer) lexical and syntactic entrainment. Finally, we show that the observed variations in the use of conversational devices are potentially adaptive: pairs of interlocutors that show stronger linguistic complementarity perform better across the two tasks. By combining motivated comparisons of several conversational contexts and theoretically informed computational analyses of empirical data the present work lays the foundations for a comprehensive conceptual framework for understanding the use of conversational devices in dialogue.
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