Exploring the Possibility of Intentional Disfluency Production as a Function for Social Communication
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Disfluency is the interruption of an otherwise continuous flow of speech. Current views explain speech disfluency in terms of both an epiphenomenon of cognitive overload, and as an intentional function for easing social interaction to convey non-explicit thought processes. This study looked at both of these hypotheses, with main focus upon disfluency as a form of social communication. The disfluencies focused upon were: ‘uh’, ‘um’, ‘hmm’, ‘oh’, laughter and silences. The Autism Spectrum Disorder is partially defined by a lack of social awareness. The Autism Quotient (AQ) test is used for determining where any individual lies on the continuum from typical development (TD) to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This study used the AQ as a measure of meta-cognitive awareness. TD students at the University of Edinburgh (N=50) undertook both a written AQ test and a verbal general knowledge test. Disfluency use during the general knowledge test was analyzed and compared to: utterance length, question answer confidence ratings, gender and AQ scores. All modeled disfluencies were found to increase with utterance length, which has been related to cognitive load (Oviatt, 1995; Shriberg, 1996). The use of ‘um’, laughter, and silence increased during moments of uncertainty, as shown by the individual confidence ratings. However, this does not distinguish whether participants were intentionally communicating uncertainty or whether it was accidental. Conversely, the use of ‘uh’ increased with confidence, insinuating a distinction between the uses of ‘uh’ and ‘um’ consistent with findings by Clark and Fox Tree (2002). Laughter was predicted significantly by uncertainty and gender (more common in females) consistent with Provine (1996), who theorized laughter as a social buffer rather than a communication tool. The most noteworthy finding was that an increased AQ score predicts a decreased use of fillers; ‘uh’, ‘um’, ‘oh’ and ‘hmm’. This suggests that filler use is significantly related to meta-cognitive interaction and thus may serve as an intentional function for communication. These results indicate that different disfluencies serve different functions. Furthering this, the use of fillers (‘uh’, ‘um’, ‘oh’ and ‘hmm’) can be considered as words rather than speech errors.