Research News

Brown-Schmidt receives NSF grant to study how cognitive processes guide interactive conversation

By Jenna Somers

Imagine an astronomer and a mechanic meet each other and strike up a conversation about their respective careers. The astronomer might ask the mechanic about which vehicles are most reliable. The mechanic might ask the astronomer whether or when humans will travel to Mars. How do they answer these questions? How do they decide to ask them in the first place? How do they come to know what information they share versus what they know not to share? Stated another way, how do people infer what others know and don’t know about them, and how do these inferences dictate what information they share and don’t share in conversation?

To help answer these questions, Sarah Brown-Schmidt, professor of psychology and human development, recently received a three-year, $382,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for her research project, “Perspective-Taking in Conversation,” to understand the cognitive mechanisms that allow people to engage in everyday conversation. She and her research team in the Department of Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development will test the hypothesis that conversational partners represent their own perspective on a situation, form a representation of their partner’s perspective and compare both to determine differences and similarities.

This new concept, known as “Modeling our Differences and Similarities,” contends that comparison of perspectives supports the most basic speech acts, such as asking information-seeking questions, responding with informative statements

woman with brown hair in black suit jacket and blouse
Sarah Brown-Schmidt, professor of psychology and human development

and making assertions.

“The MDS view argues that representations of perspective are imperfect and shaped by cognitive processes, including incremental language processing and memory limitations. In turn, these imperfect representations guide future language use,” Brown-Schmidt said. “My research team’s primary aim is to understand how representations of perspective are compared and used in conversation, and shaped by processing constraints, such as incremental processing and memory limitations.”

MDS departs from the concept of “common ground,” which is the information conversational partners know they share. According to Brown-Schmidt, common ground can help explain how people choose which words to say, but it is not enough to understand how people make conversational moves such as asking and answering questions and making assertions. Brown-Schmidt and her team will test MDS by focusing on two aims:

  • That due to the cognitive demands of speaking and listening, conversational partners experience and remember the contents and context of conversations differently, shaping their future language use.
  • That conversational partners form representations of their and their partner’s perspectives on the situation and then compare them.

Brown-Schmidt and her team of graduate research assistants and undergraduate students aim to provide novel insights about the cognitive processes that dictate how people engage in interactive conversation, as well as how these conversations may affect online discourse.