Mint journal club over at ICCI

Since finishing my PhD I’ve been lucky enough to get a position at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. Specifically, I’m working at the Minds and Traditions research group (the Mint), where we focus on one key aspect of cultural transmission: the evolution of graphic codes.

The reason I’m bringing this up is because the Mint is currently running a journal club over at the (recently revamped) International Cognition & Culture Institute (ICCI). This month we’re reading Franke & Jäger’s paper on Probabilistic pragmatics, or why Bayes’ rule is probably important for pragmatics (click here for open access version). The journal club is open to everyone, and not just Mint members, so feel free to pop over, read the paper, and leave a comment.

Two grants for PhD students in cultural evolution at Max Planck Institute (Jena)

The MPI for the Science of Human History is offering two grants for PhD students, starting 2016 (deadline for applications is March 21st, 2016).

The Minds and Traditions research group (“the Mint”), an Independent Max Planck Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena (Germany) is offering two grants for two doctoral projects focusing on “cognitive science and cultural evolution of visual culture and graphic codes“.

Funding is available for four years (three years renewable twice for six months), starting in September 2016. The PhD students will be expected to take part in a research project devoted to the cognitive science and cultural evolution of graphic codes.

More details here.

Vocal Iconicity Challenge (Deadline Extension: August 15th)

Earlier this year I mentioned that Gary Lupyan and Marcus Perlman were running a competition to win a $1000. All you have to do is pop over to their website, record yourself doing some sounds, and then submit. The good news is that they’ve extended the deadline until August 15th. So, if you fancy yourself as the iconic vocalisation master, then go to

Future tense and saving money: Small number bias

Last week saw the release of the latest Roberts & Winters collaboration (with guest star Keith Chen). The paper, Future Tense and Economic Decisions: Controlling for Cultural Evolution, builds upon Chen’s previous work by controlling for historical relationships between cultures. As Sean pointed out in his excellent overview, the analysis was extremely complicated, taking over two years to complete and the results were somewhat of a mixed bag, even if our headline conclusion suggested that the relationship between future tense (FTR) and saving money is spurious. What I want to briefly discuss here is one of the many findings buried in this paper — that the relationship could be a result of a small number bias.

One cool aspect about the World Values Survey (WVS) is that it contains successive waves of data (Wave 3: 1995-98; Wave 4: 1999-2004; Wave 5: 2005-09; Wave 6: 2010-14). This allows us to test the hypothesis that FTR is a predictor of savings behaviour and not just an artefact of the structural properties of the dataset. What do I mean by this? Basically, independent datasets sometimes look good together: they produce patterns that line up neatly and produce a strong effect. One possible explanation for this pattern is that there is a real causal relationship (influences y). Another possibility is that these patterns aligned by chance and what we’re dealing with is a small number bias: the tendency for small datasets to initially show a strong relationship that disappears with larger, more representative samples.

Since Chen’s original study, which only had access to Waves 3-5 (1995-2009), the WVS has added Wave 6, giving us an additional 5 years to see if the initial finding holds up to scrutiny. If the finding is a result of the small number bias, then we should expect FTR to produce stronger effects with smaller sub-samples of data; the initial effect being washed out as more data is added. We can also compare the effect of FTR with that of unemployment and see if there are any differences in how these two variables react to more data being added. Unemployment is particularly useful because we’ve already got a clear casual story regarding its effect on savings behaviour: unemployed individuals are less likely to save than someone who is employed, as the latter will simply have a greater capacity to set aside money for savings (of course, employment could also be a proxy for other factors, such as education background and a decreased likelihood to engage in risky behaviour etc).

What did we find? Well, when looking at the coefficients from the mixed effect models, the estimated FTR coefficient is stronger with smaller sub-samples of data (FTR coefficients for Wave 3 = 0.57; Waves 3-4 = 0.72; Waves 3-5 = 041; Waves 3-6 = 0.26). As the graphs below show, when more data is added over the years a fuller sample is achieved and the statistical effect weakens. In particular, the FTR coefficient is at its weakest when all the currently available data is used. By comparison, the coefficient for employment status is weaker with smaller sub-samples of data (employment coefficient for Wave 3 = 0.41; Waves 3-4 = 0.54; Waves 3-5 = 0.60; Waves 3-6 = 0.61). That is, employment status does not appear to exhibit a small number bias, and as the sample size increases we can be increasingly confident that employment status has an effect on savings behaviour.





So it looks like the relationship between savings behaviour and FTR is an artefact of the small number bias. But it could be the case that FTR does have a real effect albeit a weaker one — we’ve just got a better resolution for variables like unemployment and these are dampening the effect of FTR. All we can conclude for now is that the latest set of results suggest a much weaker bias for FTR on savings behaviour. When coupled with the findings of the mixed effect model — that FTR is not a significant predictor of savings behaviour — it strongly suggests this is a spurious finding. It’ll be interesting to see how these results hold up when Wave 7 is released.


The Vocal Iconicity Challenge!

Do you fancy the prospect of putting your communication skills to the test and winning $1000? If so, you should probably go and check out The Vocal Iconicity Challenge:

Devised by Gary Lupyan and Marcus Perlman, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the aim of the game is to devise a system of vocalizations to communicate a set of Paleolithic-relevant meanings. The team whose vocalizations are guessed most accurately will be crowned the Vocal Iconicity Champion (and win the $1000 Saussure Prize!). More information is on their website.

Stone Age Minds (with Dr Kenny Smith and Dr Suilin Lavelle)

As part of the free online course, Philosophy and the Sciences, Dr Kenny Smith and Dr Suilin Lavelle have prepared a three-part video series on Evolutionary Psychology and Cultural Evolution called Stone Age Minds:

Clocking in at under 40 mins for the all three parts, the series provides a good primer on the basic principles underpinning modern evolutionary theory and how this relates to our minds, the environment and culture.

Languages adapt to their contextual niche (Winters, Kirby & Smith, 2014)

ResearchBlogging.orgLast week saw the publication of my latest paper, with co-authors Simon Kirby and Kenny Smith, looking at how languages adapt to their contextual niche (link to the OA version and here’s the original). Here’s the abstract:

It is well established that context plays a fundamental role in how we learn and use language. Here we explore how context links short-term language use with the long-term emergence of different types of language systems. Using an iterated learning model of cultural transmission, the current study experimentally investigates the role of the communicative situation in which an utterance is produced (situational context) and how it influences the emergence of three types of linguistic systems: underspecified languages (where only some dimensions of meaning are encoded linguistically), holistic systems (lacking systematic structure) and systematic languages (consisting of compound signals encoding both category-level and individuating dimensions of meaning). To do this, we set up a discrimination task in a communication game and manipulated whether the feature dimension shape was relevant or not in discriminating between two referents. The experimental languages gradually evolved to encode information relevant to the task of achieving communicative success, given the situational context in which they are learned and used, resulting in the emergence of different linguistic systems. These results suggest language systems adapt to their contextual niche over iterated learning.


Context clearly plays an important role in how we learn and use language. Without this contextual scaffolding, and our inferential capacities, the use of language in everyday interactions would appear highly ambiguous. And even though ambiguous language can and does cause problems (as hilariously highlighted by the ‘What’s a chicken?’ case), it is also considered to be communicatively functional (see Piantadosi et al., 2012).  In short: context helps in reducing uncertainty about the intended meaning.

If context is used as a resource in reducing uncertainty, then it might also alter our conception of how an optimal communication system should be structured (e.g., Zipf, 1949). With this in mind, we wanted to investigate the following questions: (i) To what extent does the context influence the encoding of features in the linguistic system? (ii) How does the effect of context work its way into the structure of language?  To get at these questions we narrowed our focus to look at the situational context: the immediate communicative environment in which an utterance is situated and how it influences the distinctions a speaker needs to convey.

Of particular relevance here is Silvey, Kirby & Smith (2014): they show that the incorporation of a situational context can change the extent to which an evolving language encodes certain features of referents. Using a pseudo-communicative task, where participants needed to discriminate between a target and a distractor meaning, the authors were able to manipulate which meaning dimensions (shape, colour, and motion) were relevant and irrelevant in conveying the intended meaning. Over successive generations of participants, the languages converged on underspecified systems that encoded the feature dimension which was relevant for discriminating between meanings.

The current work extends upon these findings in two ways: (a) we added a communication element to the setup, and (b) we further explored the types of situational context we could manipulate.  Our general hypothesis, then, is that these artificial languages should adapt to the situational context in predictable ways based on whether or not a distinction is relevant in communication.

Continue reading “Languages adapt to their contextual niche (Winters, Kirby & Smith, 2014)”

Book Preview: Speaking Our Minds

This is a guest post by Thom Scott-Phillips, previewing his new book, ‘Speaking Our Minds: Why Human Communication Is Different, And How Language Evolved To Make It Special’, which has just been published by Palgrave MacMillan.

Research in language evolution does not pay much attention to pragmatics – the study of the communicative basis of language use. By way of illustration, the index to the Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution lists only 8 pages under ‘pragmatics’. In contrast, 213 pages are listed under ‘syntax’ and related terms. This is, I think, a major error.

Continue reading “Book Preview: Speaking Our Minds”

Call for papers: The University of Edinburgh’s LEL Postgraduate Conference, 28th – 30th May 2014

Every year postgraduate linguists at the University of Edinburgh get together and run a conference. The deadline for submissions is fast approaching (15th April, 2014), but it’s only 500 words, so I’m sure you’ll be able to cobble something together. For more information, visit the website: .

Here’s the call for papers (lifted from the website):

The University of Edinburgh Linguistics and English Language Postgraduate Conference in is an annual event where postgraduates present ongoing work and discuss their research with their peers and the LEL faculty. This year’s conference will be held on 28th-30th May 2014. We will be celebrating the 20th year of the conference, and we would like to invite all students of Linguistics, English Language and related disciplines to join us for this special occasion.

The conference offers a great opportunity to refine thoughts, share concerns and receive constructive criticism in a supportive and convivial environment. Additionally, it’s a great way to gain experience in conference presentation and find out about some of the exciting things going on in LEL!

We are now accepting submissions for oral presentations and posters. The standard length of a talk will be 20 minutes, followed by 10 minutes of questions. Any papers relevant to Linguistics and English Language are welcome and submissions by both University of Edinburgh and external students are highly encouraged. Tea and coffee will be provided on all three days, and there will also be a conference dinner in the evening of the 28th May (details to follow).

To apply, please submit an abstract (maximum 500 words in .doc, .docx, .tex or .rtf format; bibliographies do not count toward the word limit) by email to, no later than 23:55 on 15th April 2014. Please indicate whether you would prefer to be considered for a talk or a poster.

Writing and speech as chicken and egg

This is a guest post by Tim Gorichanaz

Evolutionary linguistics seeks to explain the origins and evolution of spoken language, but it tends not to consider written language. Perhaps rightly so: Writing is different from speech, and trying to consider both at once might only cloud things up. Still, given that writing is a symbolic representation of human thought—just as speech is—I believe analyzing the development of written language can be helpful in fleshing out the holistic story of the evolution of language.

Continue reading “Writing and speech as chicken and egg”