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Front Hum Neurosci. 2012 Sep 25;6:253. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00253. eCollection 2012.

Recipient design in human communication: simple heuristics or perspective taking?

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Radboud University Nijmegen, Donders Institute for Brain Cognition and Behaviour Nijmegen, Netherlands.


Humans have a remarkable capacity for tuning their communicative behaviors to different addressees, a phenomenon also known as recipient design. It remains unclear how this tuning of communicative behavior is implemented during live human interactions. Classical theories of communication postulate that recipient design involves perspective taking, i.e., the communicator selects her behavior based on her hypotheses about beliefs and knowledge of the recipient. More recently, researchers have argued that perspective taking is computationally too costly to be a plausible mechanism in everyday human communication. These researchers propose that computationally simple mechanisms, or heuristics, are exploited to perform recipient design. Such heuristics may be able to adapt communicative behavior to an addressee with no consideration for the addressee's beliefs and knowledge. To test whether the simpler of the two mechanisms is sufficient for explaining the "how" of recipient design we studied communicators' behaviors in the context of a non-verbal communicative task (the Tacit Communication Game, TCG). We found that the specificity of the observed trial-by-trial adjustments made by communicators is parsimoniously explained by perspective taking, but not by simple heuristics. This finding is important as it suggests that humans do have a computationally efficient way of taking beliefs and knowledge of a recipient into account.


communication; computational intractability; heuristics; recipient design

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