LingLang Lunch (4/11/2019): Roger Levy (MIT)

Roger Levy is Associate Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the director of Computational Psycholinguistics Laboratory at MIT. His research focuses on theoretical and applied questions in the processing and acquisition of natural language. For more information, his website is here.

Implicit gender bias in preferred linguistic descriptions for expected events

Language production and comprehension involve rapid integration of diverse information sources. Stereotypes—implicit mental associations among concepts—can influence event expectations and thus bias preferred linguistic descriptions. Above and beyond the effects of stereotypes on event expectations, however, can the mappings between event expectations and preferred linguistic descriptions themselves be biased? Here we provide an affirmative answer in one test case: in English speakers’ preferences regarding pronominal references to individuals whose gender is not known or determined, expectations that the individual might be female manifest in “she” pronoun preferences at a lower rate than expectations that the individual might be male manifest in “he” pronoun preferences. In large-scale experiments conducted during the 2016 US and 2017 UK electoral campaigns, where major-party candidates and fluctuating electoral prospects provided natural experiments in changing event expectations, we found that “she” references to the next head of state were consistently disadvantaged relative to election-outcome expectations. In further experiments we find that this bias also generalizes more broadly to pronoun production preferences in a wider variety of contexts. Finally, we investigate the influence of pronoun gender on event interpretation. For a rational comprehender calibrated to the production preferences described above, the signal provided by “she” that the referent may be female should be stronger than the signal provided by “he” that the referent may be male. In text memory experiments, however, we find the opposite to be the case. Our combined experimental results imply that, in linguistic descriptions of events involving a individual whose gender may not be known, speaker expectations regarding that individual’s likely gender are not faithfully transmitted — rather, expectations that the individual may be female are systematically under-conveyed. These findings pose challenges for rational theories of pragmatics, and exemplify how the tools of experimental psycholinguistics can contribute to our understanding of implicit cognition.

This talk reports ongoing work in collaboration with Veronica Boyce, Till Poppels, and Titus von der Malsburg. An initial paper can be found here.