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Lecture by Kevin Holmes - “How Linguistic Framing Shapes Socially Charged Inferences: Labels, Syntax, and Pragmatic Reasoning”

The Linguistics Department will be hosting Reed Associate Professor of Psychology Kevin Holmes for a lecture on Thursday, October 28th from 4:45 to 6:00pm in Eliot 314.

Content note: Part of this talk will discuss sensitive issues pertaining to interpersonal violence.

Abstract: Through their choice of words and grammatical structures, language users frame complex social issues like crime and inequality in ways that affect the inferences made by observers. In this talk, I will explore the effects of two kinds of linguistic framing commonly found in media reports and public discourse about such issues. First, I will present evidence that statements like “girls are just as good as boys at math” can perpetuate the stereotypes they appear to refute, but only when people are unmotivated to interrogate the pragmatic implications of the syntax. Second, I will show that the rhetorical strategy of describing the alleged perpetrator of a crime as the “real” victim influences observers’ attitudes by prompting them to interpret the victim label as a reliable communicative signal. Both lines of research—conducted in close collaboration with my undergraduate students—highlight pragmatic reasoning as a key mechanism by which language shapes socially consequential attitudes and beliefs. I will also briefly describe other recent and ongoing research from my lab that investigates the relationship between language and abstract thought.

Kevin Holmes is Associate Professor of Psychology here at Reed College. His research explores the structure of human knowledge. One line of his work examines the mental categories people rely on to perceive, think about, and act upon the world, asking whether and how such categories reflect—and are shaped by—the languages we speak. A second line of work investigates how people think and reason about abstract concepts, focusing especially on the relation between spatial and numerical thinking.

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