Referential Communication Between Friends and Strangers in the Wild

  • Kris Liu University of California, Santa Cruz
  • Trevor D'Arcey
  • Marilyn Walker
  • Jean Fox Tree


The Map Task (Anderson et al., 1991) and Tangram Task (Clark & Wilkes-Gibbs, 1986) are traditional referential communication tasks that are used in psycholinguistics research to demonstrate how conversational partners mutually agree on descriptions (or referring expressions) for landmarks or unusual target objects. These highly-controlled, laboratory-based tasks take place under conditions that are relatively unusual for naturally-occurring conversations (Speed, Wnuk, & Majid, 2016). In this study, we used the Artwalk Task (Liu, Fox Tree, & Walker, 2016) – a real world-situated blend of the Map Task and Tangram Task – to demonstrate that the process of negotiating referring expressions ‘in the wild’ is similar to the process that takes place in a laboratory. In Artwalk, participant pairs communicated via a Skype-to-mobile phone connection. One participant guided the other through a small downtown area with the goal of identifying public art objects, finding objects twice during two rounds. In addition to replicating laboratory results, we also found that acquaintanceship and extraversion influenced the number of unique descriptors used by dyads in this task. In Round 1, introverts in stranger dyads used fewer descriptors but introverts in friend dyads were indistinguishable from extraverts. The influence of extraversion declined by Round 2. This study suggests that referent negotiation observed in labs is generalizable but that naturalistic communication is subject to social and personality factors that may not be as influential in laboratory conditions.