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Rooting chimp communication in relevance theory

The key assumption of Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson’s relevance theory is that every act of communication comes with the promise (not the guarantee!) of being optimally relevant to its envisaged audience. Sperber and Wilson’s examples typically pertain to spoken face-to-face exchanges between two individuals: speaking Mary and listening Peter. A message gains in relevance for Peter to the extent that accepting it as true has consequences for his future well-being. “You just won $1 million dollars in the lottery” is in most situations presumably more relevant to him than “the milk has gone sour.” Balancing the “benefit” side, however, is the “cost” side of interpreting a message. If two messages yield the same interpretation, the one that requires the least mental effort is the more relevant one.

Relevance theory furthermore differentiates between explicit and implicit aspects of messages. Explicit information only requires decoding. For example, the following sentence provides all the necessary information for a full understanding: “Willem Alexander of Orange was crowned king of the Netherlands on 30 April 2013.” By contrast, implicit communication expects the addressee to combine the message with situational and/or background knowledge to infer what the communicator wanted to convey: “He will appear soon.” Who will? Appear how? How soon? We don’t know, but that does not matter—as long as Peter does; and Mary expects him to do so, on the basis of her hopefully correct assessment of his background knowledge and appreciation of the situation at hand.

I propose that the relevance principle holds with undiminished force for mass-communication of the visual and visual-plus-written-text variety. Genre plays a fundamental role here.

Since the search for relevance is probably evolutionarily hard-wired in all animate creatures, let me here briefly venture into a discipline far from my own and chance the following idea: insofar as animals communicate with one another, they do so on the basis of the relevance principle no less than humans do.

The primatologist Frans de Waal frequently uses the word “communication” to describe chimpanzees’ behavior toward each other. In relevance theory terms this means that one chimpanzee wants to convey information, or an emotion, to one or more conspecifics on the assumption that the latter will find processing this information worth their while, that is, find it relevant. The communicator will select the best possible behavioral stimulus—a sound, a grimace, a gesture, a posture, a movement, or a combination of these—to achieve this, as Jared Taglialatela et al. have evidenced. The mutually clear context helps specify the meaning of any communicative signal, as De Waal observes:

Apes move and wave their hands all the time while communicating, and they have an impressive repertoire of specific gestures …. When a chimp holds out his hand to a friend who is eating, he is asking for a share, but when the same chimp is under attack and holds out his hand to a bystander, he is asking for protection. He may even point out his opponent by making angry slapping gestures in his direction.

Another incident reported by De Waal pertains to an alpha male, Jimoh, pursuing a younger male in the group, intending to punish him.

Before [Jimoh] could reach this point, however, females close to the scene began to woaow bark. This indignant sound is a warning call against aggressors and intruders. … Once the protests swelled to a crescendo, Jimoh broke off his attack with a wide nervous grin on his face: he got the message.

In relevance theory terms, the females’ woaow bark is explicit information, decoded by Jimoh as “there is an aggressor.” However, the situational context makes clear that it is him who is the addressee of the barking and brings him to infer the implicit message that it is he himself whom the female apes consider to be the aggressor.

De Waal argues that many researchers studying animal communication insufficiently take into account that animals have species-specific ways of communicating, wrongly expecting other species to communicate in the same ways as humans: “Only by testing apes with apes, wolves with wolves, and children with human adults can we evaluate social cognition in its evolutionary context.”

While some communicative behavior verges toward the explicit pole (say, a threatening posture, a warning cry), other varieties are more implicit, which means that the behavior achieves relevance because the addressed animal combines the incomplete information provided by the communicating animal with pertinent background assumptions and crucial contextual circumstances that are crystal clear to both of them—and therefore need not be spelled out.

Relevance theory thus can help ground De Waal’s view that chimps (and other animals, such as elephants) communicate in species-specific ways, using various non-verbal signals to inform their conspecifics of something fairly precise that they presume these fellow chimps find relevant.

Featured image by Alexas Fotos via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. Joffre Hawtrey

    “Every act of communication comes with the promise (not the guarantee!) of being optimally relevant.” How is this not just GrIce?

  2. Charles Forceville

    Dear Joffre Hawtrey,

    Sperber and Wilson (1986) claim that Grice’s maxims of conversation can actually be reduced to just one principle: “be relevant.” Grice’s other maxims are subservient to the relevance principle. This was one of the fundamentally innovations by Sperber and Wilson vis-a-vis Grice’s theory — to which they are of course deeply indebted.

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