People understand hyperbole through intent of communication, researcher says

August 7, 2014 by Clifton B. Parker
Noah Goodman, director of Stanford's Computation and Cognition Lab, explores the ways people communicate meaning through figurative language. Credit: L.A. Cicero

Stanford scholar Noah Goodman found that people understand nonliteral language – metaphor, hyperbole and exaggerated statements – when they focus on the intent behind the communication.

People tend to understand nonliteral – metaphor, and exaggerated statements – when they realize the purpose of the , according to new Stanford research published in PNAS.

Noah Goodman, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford, believes that figurative – the nuanced ways that people use to communicate meanings different than the of their words – is one of the deepest mysteries of .

"Human ," he said, "is rife with nonliteral that includes metaphor, irony and . When we say 'Juliet is the sun' or 'That watch cost a million dollars,' listeners read through the direct meanings – which are often false if taken literally – to understand subtle connotations."

'Sharp' vs. 'round' numbers

To understand this dynamic, Goodman, director of the Computation and Cognition Lab at Stanford, and his colleagues used computational modeling. Stanford graduate student Justine Kao was the first author on the paper, which included co-authors Jean Wu, a former graduate student at Stanford, and Leon Bergen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In their lab, they develop computational models that use pragmatic reasoning to interpret metaphorical utterances. Their research for this particular project involved four online experiments with 340 subjects.

Participants in the experiments read different scenarios involving . For example, a person bought a watch and was asked by a friend whether it was expensive. That person responded with different figures, ranging from low- to high-cost figures – such as $50, $51, $10,000 or $10,001. Given this, the participants rated the probability of the purchaser thinking it was an expensive watch or not.

People tended to interpret "sharp numbers" – such as a watch costing $51 – more precisely than "round numbers," as in a watch costing $50. 

The findings suggest that even creative and figurative may follow predictable and rational principles.

Kao said, "This research advances our understanding of by providing evidence that reasoning about a speaker's goals is critical for understanding nonliteral . We were able to capture nuanced and nonliteral interpretations of number words using a ."

Common ground

The research showed that if listeners are trying to understand the topic and goal of as well as the underlying subtext – that which is not expressed explicitly – they're better able to truly understand the utterance. A sense of common knowledge about what is being described or expressed is also important. Speakers and listeners assume that individuals are rational agents who use common ground and reference points to best maximize information.

As Kao put it, "There is still a long way to go before computers can understand Shakespeare, but it is a start."

Goodman offered this example: Imagine someone describing a new restaurant, and she says, "It took 30 minutes to get a table." People are most likely to interpret this to mean she waited about 30 minutes. But if she says, "It took a million years to get a table," people will probably interpret this to mean that the wait was shorter than a million years, but that the person thinks it was much too long.

"One of the most fascinating facts about is that people do not always mean what they say – a crucial part of the listener's job is to understand an utterance even when its is false," the researchers wrote. 

Goodman said the he and his colleagues use to understand nonliteral utterances integrates empirically measured background knowledge, principles and reasoning about goals.

What is next in line research-wise?

Goodman and the others said they believe that the same ideas and techniques can extend to metaphor, irony and many other uses of . For example, they have a promising initial exploration of "is a" metaphors such as "your lawyer is a shark," Goodman said.

"Beyond these cases of figurative speech, the overall mathematical framework is beginning to give a precise theory of natural understanding that takes into account context, intention and many subtle shades of meaning," he said, adding, "There is a lot more work to do."

Explore further: Neural sweet talk: Taste metaphors emotionally engage the brain

More information: PNAS,

Related Stories

Ambiguous words probably make communicating easier

June 4, 2014

It's a good thing some words have many meanings—ambiguous words actually make communication easier and may be an inevitable consequence of a language's evolution, according to a new SFI working paper by External Professor ...

Recommended for you

For health and happiness, share good news

January 22, 2017

Service members, including both active and recently separated, have been called upon to fight overseas and to assist during natural disasters at home. They can face unique challenges when they return in both the workplace ...

The great unknown—risk-taking behaviour in adolescents

January 19, 2017

Adolescents are more likely to ignore information that could prompt them to rethink risky decisions. This may explain why information campaigns on risky behaviors such as drug abuse tend to have only limited success. These ...

Mandarin makes you more musical?

January 18, 2017

Mandarin makes you more musical - and at a much earlier age than previously thought. That's the suggestion of a new study from the University of California San Diego. But hold on there, overachiever parents, don't' rush just ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Aug 07, 2014
met a 4.
All life is met a 4.
not rated yet Aug 07, 2014
BTW this is is 70's psycholinguistics.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.