Toward an experimental method for studying the emergence of human communication systems

Date of Completion

January 2004


Language, Linguistics|Speech Communication|Psychology, Experimental|Psychology, Cognitive




Wittgenstein's metaphors of language as a game and words as tools suggest that understanding language should be grounded in the study of the procedures humans develop to coordinate their cooperative activities. A method that allows experimental investigation of the emergence and the development of human communication would provide an ideal opportunity to assess how useful these ideas are for research. However, no such general method currently exists. Typically, investigators study the emergence of human communication systems either via natural experiments or via simulations with artificial agents. The latter option has the desirable feature of allowing experimental control, the former that of preserving the richness of human behavior. This dissertation introduces a method that combines the two features. ^ In brief, pairs of participants played a videogame with two interconnected computers located in different rooms. The players in a pair did not know each other's identity but shared the virtual environment of a game that required them to communicate in order to coordinate their moves. The experimental set-up, however, did not support the use of conventional communication systems. Spoken language was not possible because there was no audio channel. Visual communication was possible, but it had to occur through a device whose parameterization ruled out the use of conventional graphic forms (e.g. letters and numbers). ^ The method's viability for research was confirmed in two studies that used games of increasing complexity. Novel and often sophisticated visual communication systems emerged in reasonable time frames. The use of visual signs was often highly intertwined with the patterns of joint action promoted by a game's constraints and the establishment of a sign within a system depended on how consistently it was replicated by both players. Furthermore, the studies suggested that: (a) communication systems can be extremely diverse in kind and yet be equally successful and (b) new parts of an evolving communication system emerge, preferably, out of the material provided by earlier stages of the system. ^ The results are discussed in the context of an assessment of the benefits, limitations, and overall potential of the proposed method for research on human communication. ^