Friday, June 25, 2010

Cultural Evolution 8A: Addendum on Language as Game

I did my graduate work at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where I was enrolled in the English Department, which, at that time, had the most innovative graduate program in the nation. I got my training in cognitive science from the late David Hays, who was in the SUNY Linguistics Department, indeed, he founded the department. Hays had been educated at Harvard, spent a year at the Stanford Institute for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, and the went off to the RAND corporation, where he became one of the founders of the discipline of computational linguistics.

I first learned about Hays in the summer of 1973 ¬– the summer before I entered graduate school at SUNY Buffalo – when he published at article in an issue of Dædalus devoted to language:

Hays, D. G. (1973). "Language and Interpersonal Relationships." Dædalus 102(3): 203-216.

In that article Hays reports the following experiment, which is directly relevant to the game theory approach to language that I outlined in the previous post (pp. 204-205)
The experiment strips conversation down to its barest essentials by depriving the subject of all language except for two pushbuttons and two lights, and by suggesting to him that he is attempting to reach an accord with a mere machine. We brought two students into our building through different doors and led them separately to adjoining rooms. We told each that he was working with a machine, and showed him lights and pushbuttons. Over and over again, at a signal, he would press one or the other of the two buttons, and then one of two lights would come on. If the light that appeared corresponded to the button he pressed, he was right; otherwise, wrong. The students faced identical displays, but their feedback was reversed: if student A pressed the red button, then a moment later student B would see the red light go on, and if student B pressed the red button, then student A would see the red light. On any trial, therefore, if the two students pressed matching buttons they would both be correct, and if they chose opposite buttons they would both be wrong.

We used a few pairs of RAND mathematicians; but they would quickly settle on one color, say red, and choose it every time. Always correct, they soon grew bored. The students began with difficulty, but after enough experience they would generally hit on something. . . . The students, although they were sometimes wrong, were rarely bored. They were busy figuring out the complex patterns of the machine.

But where did the patterns come from? Although neither student knew it, they arose out of the interaction of two students.

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