Does Evaluative Language Provide Reasons to Act? An Empirical Study of the Action-Guiding Potential of Evaluative Concepts

Conference Paper
Pascale Willemsen & Judith Martens
Willemsen, P., & Martens, J (2023). Does evaluative language provide reasons to act? An empirical study of the action-guiding potential of evaluative concepts. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society.
Publication year: 2023

What is the difference between language that describes the world and language that evaluates it? It has been suggested that an essential, distinguishing feature of evaluative language is its potential to guide actions by providing us with reasons to act. Calling an action “cruel” not only evaluates it negatively, its cruelty also provides us with a reason to refrain from it. Descriptive language, in and by itself, is relatively inert in this respect. In this paper, we examine whether this undisputed assumption is empirically adequate. We present three preregistered studies that demonstrate that evaluative language provides reasons for action when an agent contemplates how she should act, and also in conversational contexts. However, we also demonstrate that the speaker can easily deny the intention to provide such reasons to act.

“I forgive you!” — Exploring the Impact of Forgiveness on Negative Emotions and Blame

Conference Paper
Walker Siu Hong Au & Pascale Willemsen
Au, W. S. H., & Willemsen, P. (2023). “I forgive you!” – Exploring the impact of forgiveness on negative emotions and blame. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society.
Publication year: 2023

Forgiveness plays a significant role in our everyday social life, and, because of that, it has received an increasing amount of attention in academic research. However, philosophers and psychologists are equally worried by the fact that we still lack an empirically adequate characterization of forgiveness. In this paper, we present two preregistered studies in which we explore what ordinary people believe a speaker does when he or she performs the speech act of forgiving by uttering the phrase, “I forgive you”. Study 1 uses a vignette-based stimulus to examine what participants believe to change after the victim granted forgiveness to their wrong-doer. In Study 2, we apply a linguistic test, the cancellability test, to determine whether participants consider forgiving the wrong-doer but still blaming them compatible.

The polarity effect of evaluative language

Conference PaperPeer-reviewed
Lucien Baumgartner, Pascale Willemsen, & Kevin Reuter
Baumgartner, L., Willemsen, P., & Reuter, K. (2022). The polarity effect of evaluative language. In J. Culbertson, A. Perfors, Hugh Rabagliati, & V. Ramenzoni (Eds.), Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society.
Publication year: 2022

Recent research on thick terms like ‘rude’ and ‘friendly’ has revealed a polarity effect, according to which the evaluative content of positive thick terms like ‘friendly’ and ‘courageous’ can be more easily cancelled than the evaluative content of negative terms like ‘rude’ and ‘selfish’. In this paper, we study the polarity effect in greater detail. We first demonstrate that the polarity effect is insensitive to manipulations of embeddings (Study 1). Second, we show that the effect occurs not only for thick terms but also for thin terms such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (Study 2). We conclude that the polarity effect is indicative of a pervasive asymmetry that holds between positive and negative evaluative terms.

Separability and the Effect of Valence An Empirical Study of Thick Concepts

Conference PaperPeer-reviewed
Pascale Willemsen, Kevin Reuter
Willemsen, P., & Reuter, K. (2020). Separability and the Effect of Valence. Proceedings of the 42th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society 2020, pp. 794-800.
Publication year: 2020

Thick terms and concepts, such as honesty and cruelty, are at the heart of a variety of debates in linguistics, philosophy of language, and metaethics. Central to these debates is the question of how the descriptive and evaluative components of thick concepts are related and whether they can be separated from each other. So far, no empirical data on how thick terms are used in ordinary language has been collected to inform these debates. In this paper, we present the first empirical study, designed to investigate whether the evaluative component of thick concepts can be separated. Our study might be considered to support the view that separation is not possible. However, our study also reveals an effect of valence, indicating that people reason differently about positive and negative thick terms. While evaluations cannot be cancelled for negative thick terms, they can be for positive ones. Three follow-up studies were conducted to explain this effect. We conclude that the effect of valence is best accounted for by a difference in the social norms guiding evaluative language.

Marbles in inaction: Counterfactual simulation and causation by omissions

Conference PaperPeer-reviewed
Simon Stephan, Pascale Willemsen, Tobias Gerstenberg
Stephan, S., Willemsen, P., & Gerstenberg, T (2017). Marbles in inaction: Counterfactual simulation and causation by omissions. Proceedings of the 35th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society 2017, pp. 1132-1137
Publication year: 2017

Consider the following causal explanation: The ball went through the goal because the defender didn’t block it. There are at least two problems with citing omissions as causal explanations. First, how do we choose the relevant candidate omission (e.g. why the defender and not the goalkeeper). Second, how do we determine what would have happened in the relevant counterfactual situation (i.e. maybe the shot would still have gone through the goal even if it had been blocked). In this paper, we extend the counterfactual simulation model (CSM) of causal judgment (Gerstenberg, Goodman, Lagnado, & Tenenbaum, 2014) to handle the second problem. In two experiments, we show how people’s causal model of the situation affects their causal judgments via influencing what counterfactuals they consider. Omissions are considered causes to the extent that the outcome in the relevant counterfactual situation would have been different from what it actually was.

How the truth can make a great lie: An empirical investigation of lying by falsely implicating

Conference PaperPeer-reviewed
Alex Wiegmann, Pascale Willemsen
Wiegmann, A., & Willemsen, P. (2017). How the truth can make a great lie : an empirical investigation of the folk concept of lying by falsely implicating. Cognitive Science Society.
Publication year: 2017

Is it possible to lie despite not saying anyhing false? While the spontaneous answer seems to be ‘no’, there is some evidence from ordinary language that a lie does not require what is said to be believed-false. In this paper, we will argue for a pragmatic extension of the standard definition of lying. More specifically, we will present three experiments which show that people’s concept of lying is not about what is said, but about what is implied by saying it that way. We test three Gricean conversational maxims. For each one of them we demonstrate that if a speaker implies something misleading, even by saying something semantically true, it is still considered lying.