The role of cognitive control and referential complexity on adults’ choice of referring expressions: Testing and expanding the referential complexity scale.
This study aims to advance our understanding of the nature and source(s) of individual differences in pragmatic language behavior over the adult lifespan. Across four story continuation experiments, we probed adults’ (N = 496 participants, ages 18–82) choice of referential forms (i.e., names vs. pronouns to refer to the main character). Our manipulations were based on Fossard et al.’s (2018) scale of referential complexity which varies according to the visual properties of the scene: low complexity (one character), intermediate complexity (two characters of different genders), and high complexity (two characters of the same gender). Since pronouns signal topic continuity (i.e., that the discourse will continue to be about the same referent), the use of pronouns is expected to decrease as referential complexity increases. The choice of names versus pronouns, therefore, provides insight into participants’ perception of the topicality of a referent, and whether that varies by age and cognitive capacity. In Experiment 1, we used the scale to test the association between referential choice, aging, and cognition, identifying a link between older adults’ switching skills and optimal referential choice. In Experiments 2–4, we tested novel manipulations that could impact the scale and found both the timing of a competitor referent’s presence and emphasis placed on competitors modulated referential choice, leading us to refine the scale for future use. Collectively, Experiments 1–4 highlight what type of contextual information is prioritized at different ages, revealing older adults’ preserved sensitivity to (visual) scene complexity but reduced sensitivity to linguistic prominence cues, compared to younger adults.
Publication typeJournal article