It's Personal and Disgusting: Extra-Linguistic Information in Language Comprehension.


This dissertation examines the influence of various extra-linguistic aspects on language comprehension. While language comprehension is generally understood to be influenced by real-world context, and by certain individual difference variables such as the listener’s mood, it is unclear how an individual’s personality and political views interact with variables inferred about the speaker when understanding language. This dissertation thus investigated how aspects of a listener’s identity (namely their personality, political views, and Disgust Sensitivity), combined with aspects inferred about the speaker’s identity (specifically, their gender inferred from their voice), influences language comprehension. Additionally, this dissertation presents the first investigation of Disgust Sensitivity within the context of linguistic processing. Disgust Sensitivity is assumed to be a marker of Behavioural Immune System activity, which attempts to protect an organism from pathogens and is thus assumed to correlate with a person’s outgroup stigmatization tendencies. To assess the effects of the variables mentioned on both conscious and sub-conscious language comprehension, a multi-methodological array of four psycholinguistic experiments was conducted, using the item rating, self-paced listening, and pupillometry paradigms. Crucially, a portion of the auditory stimuli in each experiment contained one of three types of clashes: Morpho-syntactic errors (such as “He often walk his dog…”), semantic anomalies (such as “Dogs often chase teas…”), and socio-cultural clashes based on established gender stereotypes (such as “I buy my bras…” spoken by a male speaker), and it was especially the listener’s responses to these clashes that were of interest. Specifically, the four experiments in this dissertation investigated whether the variables in question modulated language comprehension, and whether the processing of the three clash types was influenced by different variables. It was additionally hypothesized that Disgust Sensitivity would specifically modulate responses to socio-cultural clashes. Results from the four experiments indicate that personality traits, political values, and Disgust Sensitivity indeed affect language comprehension, but that no one variable affects it across the board. Results are in line with a view of language comprehension that includes anticipation based on contextual factors, and that assigns importance to extra-linguistic variables. Results further suggest that “intra-linguistic information” is not considered separately, in a first step, with the utterance being integrated with extra-linguistic information at a later point; rather, results are compatible with a (constraint-based) one-step model of language comprehension, where all available information is used in anticipation, and in one single step of comprehension. Results are thus broadly supportive of a cognitive linguistic view, and are not at odds with experiential accounts of linguistic representation.