Contrast perception as a visual heuristic in the formulation of referential expressions


We hypothesize that contrast perception works as a visual heuristic, such that when speakers perceive a significant degree of contrast in a visual context, they tend to produce the corresponding adjective to describe a referent. The contrast perception heuristic supports efficient audience design, allowing speakers to produce referential expressions with minimum expenditure of cognitive resources, while facilitating the listener’s visual search for the referent. We tested the perceptual contrast hypothesis in three language-production experiments. Experiment 1 revealed that speakers overspecify color adjectives in polychrome displays, whereas in monochrome displays they overspecified other properties that were contrastive. Further support for the contrast perception hypothesis comes from a re-analysis of previous work, which confirmed that color contrast elicits color overspecification when detected in a given display, but not when detected across monochrome trials. Experiment 2 revealed that even atypical colors (which are often overspecified) are only mentioned if there is color contrast. In Experiment 3, participants named a target color faster in monochrome than in polychrome displays, suggesting that the effect of color contrast is not analogous to ease of production. We conclude that the tendency to overspecify color in polychrome displays is not a bottom-up effect driven by the visual salience of color as a property, but possibly a learned communicative strategy. We discuss the implications of our account for pragmatic theories of referential communication and models of audience design, challenging the view that overspecification is a form of egocentric behavior.