Probability and processing speed of scalar inferences is context-dependent

AbstractStudies addressing the question of whether scalar inferences generally incur a processing cost have yielded conflicting results. Constraint-based accounts, which seek to unify these conflicting results, make a prediction which we test here: the probability of an interpretation and the speed with which it is processed depends on the contextual support it receives. We manipulated contextual support for the scalar inference in two truth-value judgment experiments by manipulating a lexical feature (presence of partitive “of the”) and a pragmatic feature (the implicit Question Under Discussion). Participants’ responder type – whether their majority response was pragmatic (reflecting the inference) or literal (reflecting its absence) – was the main predictor of response times: pragmatic responses were faster than literal responses when generated by pragmatic responders; the reverse was true for literal responders. We interpret this as further evidence against costly inference accounts and in support of constraint-based accounts of pragmatic processing.

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