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Pragmatic skills in aging : the case of irony
Greta Mazzaggio, Hortense De Bettignies, Diana Mazzarella, 2021, published scientific conference contribution abstract

Abstract: The use of non-literal language, like verbal irony, is deeply embedded in everyday communication and the ability to comprehend it changes across life. According to the echoic mention theory (Wilson & Sperber, 2012), understanding irony amounts to recognize a dissociative attitude. In the ‘Contextual echo’ example (Figure 1), Cynthia’s utterance “Tonight we gave a superb performance” is an example of irony. Cynthia is expressing a dissociative, mocking attitude towards the blatantly false proposition “Tonight we gave a superb performance”, that echoes the unfulfilled expectation that the concert would go well. The thought that is echoed can be “uttered”, like in the ‘Explicit echo’ example where the ironic utterance echoes the content explicitly expressed by Lea’s preceding statement; but the dissociative attitude can also target some implicitly communicated meaning, like in the ‘Implicated echo’ example, where the ironic utterance echoes the implicature of Lea’s statement, that is that they will sing well. Our first aim is to assess whether the echo’s degree of explicitness influence the processing of irony. Second, since research indicates that older adults sometimes struggle in understanding non-literal statements, like presupposition (Domaneschi & Di Paola 2019) or humor (Bischetti et al. 2019), we want to address the question of whether the processing of irony is more effortful in late adulthood and, if so, which underlying cognitive capacities might be responsible. Data collection is ongoing and the study is pre-registered on OSF ( Methods: The experiment requires the participation of 25 young adults (18-29-year-old) and 25 older adults (65-74-year-old). Participants will be administered a series of standardized tests to assess a) ToM (Faux Pas test) b) WM (Alpha span test) c) Autistic Quotient. The experimental study is a self-paced reading task. Each participant will be presented with stories adapted from the material of Spotorno & Noveck (2014): 15 ironic stories (5 with contextual echo, 5 with implicated echo and 5 with explicit echo), 5 literal stories, 10 decoys and 20 fillers (in a randomized order). Participants answer a yes/no comprehension question at the end of each story. An example of stories is given in Figure 1. Predictions: We expect overall slower reading time for ironic statements compared to literal ones and greater difficulties in the older adults group for ironic statements. We predict that our manipulation of the echo will have an effect on the processing of irony, and that reading times will be faster when the echo is explicit compared to when the echo is implicated (a stronger effect for older adults). We also expect that performance in our ToM task will predict reading times for ironic statements, with lower performance resulting in slower reading times. The presence of an implicated echo will exacerbate the difficulties. Moreover, we expect a positive correlation between the Autistic Quotient score and the difference between the reading times in the ironic and literal conditions. Finally, we expect that WM score will predict longer reading times for ironic statements when the implicitness of the echo poses higher cognitive demands. Analysis plan: First, we plan an evaluation of the group differences for neuropsychological data using a Wilcoxon signed- rank test. Then, we will proceed with a Pearson correlation coefficient test and analysis of variance to understand the relationship between the different measures (Clark, et al. 2010). The principal component analysis will be used to further assess their relationship. To understand the effect of the predictors on the reading time we will run a (Generalized) Linear Mixed-Effects Model with reading time as response variable, (Age Group x Type x Echo) as categorical predictors, test scores of neuropsychological data as continuous (or ordinal) predictors, and subject ID and items as random effects. All relevant interactions (both fixed and random) will also be assessed. The models will be fitted in R using the ‘lme4’ package (Bates et al. 2015). The (G)LMM will be simplified by removing one non-significant interaction at a time (and then, possibly non-significant main effects) on the basis of the Analysis of Deviance (LR Tests), until the optimal model is reached.
Keywords: irony, processing, aging
Published in RUNG: 22.09.2021; Views: 2141; Downloads: 86
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Does irony understanding decline with age?
Greta Mazzaggio, Hortense De Bettignies, Diana Mazzarella, 2021, published scientific conference contribution abstract

Abstract: The use of non-literal language is deeply embedded in everyday communication and the ability to comprehend it changes across life. Research indicates that older adults sometimes struggle in understanding pragmatic aspects of language, such as presupposition (Domaneschi & Di Paola 2019), humor (Bischetti et al. 2019) or sarcasm (Phillips et al. 2015). The present study aims at broadening our understanding of these age-related changes by focusing on irony understanding. To understand irony (e.g., ‘The weather is great!’ uttered under a pouring rain), one needs to recognize that the speaker is expressing a dissociative attitude towards a proposition that is blatantly irrelevant or false, which echoes an attributed thought or statement (e.g., the proposition ‘The weather is great’ attributed to the mistaken weather forecaster). Previous research shows that the ability to process irony is closely related to Theory-of-Mind (ToM) and working memory (WM). As there is evidence of an age-related decline in both cognitive abilities, this decline may impact irony understanding in late adulthood. In our ongoing study, we test the effect of age on irony-processing by comparing self-paced reading times of ironic and literal statements across two age groups (young adults: 19-25 yo and older adults: 65-74 yo). Crucially, we manipulate the degree of explicitness of the statement echoed by the ironic speaker. We predict that the difference between the reading times for ironic and literal statements will be modulated by age. Moreover, we predict that reading times will be faster when the echo is explicit compared to when the echo is implicated and that this effect will be stronger for older adults. Finally, we expect that ToM and WM will both be significant predictors and that WM will play a crucial role when the implicitness of the echo poses higher cognitive demands
Keywords: irony, aging, cognitive decline, experimental pragmatics, processing
Published in RUNG: 22.09.2021; Views: 1974; Downloads: 47
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The atypical pattern of irony comprehension in children with high-functioning autism
Greta Mazzaggio, Francesca Foppolo, Beatrice Giustolisi, Luca Surian, 2018, published scientific conference contribution abstract

Abstract: Irony comprehension is a complex task that typically developing (TD) children reach around the age of six. Some scholars (Sullivan et al., 1995 a.o.) claimed that 2nd order Theory of Mind (ToM) skills are required to understand irony, but also linguistic abilities (which predict ToM development: Milligan, Astington & Dack, 2007) play a role (Filippova & Astington, 2008; Bosco & Gabbatore, 2017). Children with high-functioning autism (HFA) have intact linguistic abilities, but impaired social relations. Some children with ASD pass even 2nd order ToM tasks, even if they could be using compensatory verbalizing strategies (Fisher, Happé & Dunn, 2005; Happé, 1995; Tager-Flusberg, 2000). We tested irony comprehension in HFA children with the aim to assess the contribution of the factors that may facilitate it and disentangle their relationships. We analyzed responses to the key question to understand irony, i.e. questions on speaker’s meaning and attitude. HFA children showed a peculiar pattern: their accuracy on literal stories was at ceiling, demonstrating that they understood the task, but in irony comprehension they lag behind their TD peers matched for age and non-verbal IQ. Even if this result was not unexpected, given the impairment in social communication associated to HFA, our group of 26 HFA showed a somehow surprising bimodal distribution. Moreover, differently from the TD group, accuracy on ironic stories did not depend neither on age nor on (non-)verbal IQ in HFA participants. And conversely ToM skills played a significant role in irony understanding only for HFA children, and not for TD children.In order to account for these data, we can hypothesize that – in general – HFA children show an impairment in pragmatic inference abilities and in ToM abilities (see Loukusa & Moilanen, 2009 and Baron-Cohen, 2000 for a review), as found also in our sample of LP children. The HP children, on the other hand, might adopt a strategy, different from TD children, to respond correctly to ironic stories, as suggested by Wang et al. (2006). Interestingly, Pexman et al. (2011) found that HFA children, who did not differ in accuracy with respect to TD controls, applied a different processing strategy for irony comprehension, and hypothesized that they resort to a more rule-based strategy, with an intellectual-style approach to compensate their social deficits. Our bimodal distribution could then identify two classes of HFA participants: the LP ones correspond to the pragmatic-impaired profile of HFA, the HP ones on the other hand could be using a compensatory strategy, since they could have been trained to recognize irony and/or other persons’ states of mind (ToM) during speech therapy sessions, as reported in Persicke et al. (2013). Future research should investigate this hypothesis more in depth, with a longitudinal study of HFA participants after a training in irony comprehension, in ToM metarepresentational abilities, and without training.
Keywords: irony processing, autism developmental disorder, theory of mind, IQ, experimental pragamtics
Published in RUNG: 21.09.2021; Views: 2126; Downloads: 57
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