Children’s interpretation of verbal probabilities: use of directionality and pragmatic cues

Gourdon-Kanhukamwe, Amélie and Beck, Sarah (2013) Children’s interpretation of verbal probabilities: use of directionality and pragmatic cues. In: CogDev 2013. Joint Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society (BPS) Cognitive and Developmental Sections; 04-06 Sep 2013, Reading, U.K.. (Unpublished)


We showed in two experiments that children’s interpretation of verbal probabilities (e.g., It is likely) relies on the positive or negative linguistic nature (i.e., directionality) and on their knowledge of the speaker’s intention. In Experiment 1, four verbal probabilities were used, which varied in directionality (positive or negative), and in their level of likelihood (high or low). Forty-seven children made likelihood judgements, expected value judgements and decisions based on those expressions. Their likelihood judgements reflected a use of directionality only, judging positive expressions as conveying a higher likelihood than negative expressions. Expected value judgements and decisions showed no use of directionality or of likelihood. In Experiment 2, the same four verbal probabilities were given twice to 48 children: in one case, they were presented as told by a benevolent speaker, and in the other case, as told by a malevolent speaker; these conditions were counterbalanced. As in Experiment 1, children used only directionality, not likelihood. This was the case in all tasks: when the verbal probabilities were positive, likelihood judgements and expected value judgements were higher, and more risky decisions were made; when the expressions were negative, likelihood judgements and expected value judgements were lower, and less risky decisions were made. This was however in interaction with the known intention of the speaker, such that these effects only occurred when the speaker was benevolent; when the speaker was malevolent, judgements and decisions were made at chance level, suggesting that children judged randomly. We propose to account for children’s use of only directionality in terms of cognitive demands, with directionality imposing less of such demands than likelihood. We also suggest that the differential use of directionality based on speakers’ intentions support that directionality fulfils a pragmatic function in verbal probabilities.

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