Stored object knowledge and the production of referring expressions: The case of color typicality

Hans Westerbeek, Ruud Koolen, A.A. Maes

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When speakers describe objects with atypical properties, do they include these properties in their referring expressions, even when that is not strictly required for unique referent identification? Based on previous work, we predict that speakers mention the color of a target object more often when the object is atypically colored, compared to when it is typical. Taking literature from object recognition and visual attention into account, we further hypothesize that this behavior is proportional to the degree to which a color is atypical, and whether color is a highly diagnostic feature in the referred-to object's identity. We investigate these expectations in two language production experiments, in which participants referred to target objects in visual contexts. In Experiment 1, we find a strong effect of color typicality: less typical colors for target objects predict higher proportions of referring expressions that include color. In Experiment 2 we manipulated objects with more complex shapes, for which color is less diagnostic, and we find that the color typicality effect is moderated by color diagnosticity: it is strongest for high-color-diagnostic objects (i.e., objects with a simple shape). These results suggest that the production of atypical color attributes results from a contrast with stored knowledge, an effect which is stronger when color is more central to object identification. Our findings offer evidence for models of reference production that incorporate general object knowledge, in order to be able to capture these effects of typicality on determining the content of referring expressions.
Original languageEnglish
Article number935
Number of pages13
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 22 Jun 2015


  • reference production
  • color typicality
  • content determination
  • cognitive visual saliency
  • models of reference production


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