Investigating the effect of empathy on word order in audience design
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Exploration into the field of empathy has indicated its association with helpful behaviour. In doing so it has brought to attention the possibility that empathy may be associated with the practice of audience design (i.e. the practice of adapting one’s language for the benefit of an addressee) and may therefore affect our language. The present study will explore this possibility, and will investigate whether empathy affects speakers’ word order during communication. Participants filled out empathy questionnaires; those who classified as highly empathic and highly un-empathic were then recruited to take part in a communication game. Participants were required to give directions to an addressee about where to place picture cards on a 5 x 4 grid. These cards were organised into two boxes; box 1 was organised according to the picture’s pattern, and box 2 was organised according to the picture’s colour. If participants’ descriptions consistently reflected the stimulus array, then this would be taken as evidence of tailoring. Based on the assumption that empathy has an influence on a speaker’s tendency to engage in audience design, the empathic group was expected to tailor their descriptions to reflect the stimulus array i.e. produce colour-first descriptions when describing cards from the colour box, and produce pattern-first descriptions when describing from the pattern box. Analysis of participants’ word order confirmed our expectation that empathic ability affects individuals’ tendency to engage in audience design. Individuals high in empathy tailored their descriptions to reflect the stimulus array, whereas individuals low in empathy did not. It was concluded that empathic individuals have a heightened capacity for perspective taking which drives a willingness to adapt their linguistic behaviour, in terms of word order, to suite the needs and perspectives of their interlocutors.