DEC Colloquium

A psycholinguistic look at subjective predicates: When faultless disagreement is not so faultless

Practical information
06 June 2023

ENS, salle Jaurès, 29 rue d'Ulm, 75005 Paris


The information we encounter on a daily basis involves both objective facts about the world and people’s subjective opinions. This distinction is also reflected in language: Words that express opinions (e.g. fun, amazing) differ from words conveying more objective facts (e.g. wooden, Bostonian): Subjective adjectives are perspective-sensitive and reflect someone’s opinion/attitude. Indeed, it has been widely noted that when two people disagree about matters of taste, neither is in the wrong: There is nothing contradictory when one person says “The rollercoaster was scary!” and the other responds “No, it was not scary” – in contrast to disagreements about objective facts. This phenomenon – central in semantic theories of subjective language – is called Faultless Disagreement. It is assumed stem from subjective predicates having a special semantics. However, in this talk, I present a series of experiments – some of which are collaborative work with Deniz Rudin, Jesse Storbeck and Haley Hsu – showing that people’s judgments of faultless disagreement (in other words, how willing we are to accept two divergent opinions as both being valid) are modulated by contextual and social considerations that go far beyond the predicate itself.

First, I show that the extent to which people accept two divergent views as both being right depends on the prevalence of opinions in a community. For example, disagreements about divisive foods (e.g. anchovies) are rated more faultless than disagreements about widely-liked foods (e.g. donuts). Our results suggest that unpopular opinions (e.g. ‘donuts are disgusting’) are viewed as more ‘wrong’ than more prevalent opinions (e.g. ‘anchovies are disgusting’). Second, I provide evidence from a series of studies that people yield to expertise: When individuals who respect expertise in a given domain encounter a disagreement between two experts (e.g. a disagreement about wine between a wine connoisseur and a non-expert, or a disagreement about COVID-related behaviors between a doctor and a non-doctor), they are more likely to say one person is wrong, compared to a disagreement between two equal (non) experts. Thus, people’s reactions to subjective disagreements cannot be reduced to the adjective’s semantics or even the lexical content of the sentence itself, but reflect more complex contextual and social factors. Third, time permitting, I will present recent eye-tracking work from my lab on the real-time processing of subjective predicates.

As a whole, these results suggest that (i) the phenomenon of faultless disagreement cannot be regarded simply as a reflex of the lexical content of the predicate or even the sentence that contains it, and that (ii) using faultless disagreement as a means to distinguish ‘opinion’ from ‘fact’ is harder than one might expect, and modulated by multiple sources of information.