An old story about J. Edgar Hoover illustrates the miscommunication of intentions. When Hoover noticed that the text of a memo his secretary typed had spilled into the page margins, he scribbled a note to her: “Watch the borders.” The next day agents were on high alert on the border with Mexico. The question we'd like to address in this paper is this: Why did Hoover miscommunicate?
We propose that much miscommunication is systematic. It results from the nature of language use. We attempt to demonstrate our point by noting the similarities between the way people make decisions and the way they use language. As in decision making, uncertainty is inherent in the way people use language. The way language users overcome this uncertainty leads to systematic errors.
When we attempt to understand what speakers mean, we must infer what they mean from what they say. This is because all utterances are ambiguous. “Borders” is lexically ambiguous, but ambiguity in language goes beyond lexical ambiguity. In fact, everything people say is ambiguous because it can convey more than one intention. To overcome this inherent ambiguity, we propose that language users rely on certain heuristics of language use. As with other heuristics, they are generally successful but they occasionally lead to systematic error.
In this chapter, we propose that speakers, addressees, and overhearers reduce the uncertainty of linguistic utterances by using an anchoring and adjustment heuristic.