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utility-theoretic model to explain polite speech production
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Polite speech emerges from competing social goals

Abstract: Language is a remarkably efficient tool for transmitting information. Yet human speakers make statements that are inefficient, imprecise, or even contrary to their own beliefs, all in the service of being polite. What rational machinery underlies polite language use? Here, we show that polite speech emerges from the competition of three communicative goals: to convey information, to be kind, and to present oneself in a good light. We formalize this goal tradeoff using a probabilistic model of utterance production, which predicts human utterance choices in socially-sensitive situations with high quantitative accuracy, and we show that our full model is superior to its variants with subsets of the three goals. This utility-theoretic approach to speech acts takes a step towards explaining the richness and subtlety of social language use.

The preprint of the manuscript is available here.

The preregistration of experiments and key hypotheses about behavioral data and model predictions can be viewed here.

structure of this repository


contains two experiments.

  • prior elicitation (literal semantics) (see task here)
  • speaker production (see task here)


contains data, analysis scripts, and figures.


contains BDA model scripts and outputs, and other stat Rds files.


contains manuscript (see our preprint file in this repo here and uploaded on osf here).

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