Relevance Theory

Here’s a brief summary of relevance theory for anyone who’s interested. I’m just reading up on it and it seems like a potent approach for dealing with the intersection between cognition and communication. The info here is based upon the paper Relevance Theory by Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber. Hope this might be of some use to someone… 

Relevance theory is psychological model for understanding the cognitive interpretation of language of language, as well as “an inferential approach to pragmatics”. It stands opposed to classical code model whereby information is encoded into a message, transmitted and decoded by another party, with another copy of the code. Inferential approaches to pragmatics hold that linguistic meaning of the words decoded by the receiver is just one of many inputs that can affect interpretation.

Relevance theory argues that the thing that causes an input to stand out from others is its relevance to the receiver. Wilson and Sperber make these rules:

“a. Other things being equal, the greater the positive cognitive effects achieved by processing an input, the greater the relevance of the input to the individual at that time

 b. Other things being equal, the greater the processing effort expended, the lower the relevance of the input to the individual at that time.” (p252)

So what we have, cognitively speaking, is a cost/benefit analysis whereby the cost of processing is weighed against the possible positive cognitive benefits. This is summarised by Wilson and Sperber as The Cognitive Principle of Relevance:

“Human cognition tends to be geared towards the maximisation of relevance” (p255)

This rule helps to make sense of the cognitive relevance of information, but if we were just sucking in every possible input and scanning it for relevance then communication would become quite difficult. Inferential models of communication make the claim that communication contains not only the information that you wish to transmit, but also the information of your intention to inform the audience of your intention. So it’s not enough to communicate, you also have to draw attention to your intention to communicate, and this is carried with the message itself (which for some reason makes me think of Althusser’s notion of interpellation). So the cognitive principle of relevance is balanced in relevance theory, by The Communicative Principle of Relevance:

“Every ostensive stimulus conveys a presumption of its own optimal relevance”

And by optimal relevance they mean that it is worth the audience’s processing effort and that it is the most relevant message in terms of compatibility with the communicators abilities and preferences.

So to summarise:

Relevance theory states that receiving communication is a process of sifting through the available inputs to find the communication of most relevance. However messages carry information about their own ostensive relevance which allows the receiver to infer which are the most important, and permits the sender a degree of control over their importance. For evolutionary analyses, I find the idea that human cognition is geared towards maximising relevance very useful, particularly in the areas in which I’m working. Can some aspects of our linguistic apparatus be said to be geared towards this purpose?


5 Responses to “Relevance Theory”

  1. 1 Dan Sperber June 7, 2007 at 7:04 am

    Thank you for drawing attention to Relevance Theory. The implications of the theory for the evolution of language are drawn out in two articles available at my website,

    Gloria Origgi & Dan Sperber (2000) Evolution, communication, and the proper function of language (A discussion of Millikan in the light of pragmatics and of the psychology of mindreading in Peter Carruthers and Andrew Chamberlain eds., Evolution and the Human Mind: Language, Modularity and Social Cognition. Cambridge University Press),

    Dan Sperber & Deirdre Wilson (2002) Pragmatics, Modularity and Mind-reading. ( Mind and Language, 17. 3-23),

    See also, for a shorter paper: Gloria Origgi, Dan Sperber “A Pragmatic Perspective on the Evolution of Langage and Languages” paper at the web conference on “Issues in Coevolution of Language and Theory of Mind” at interdisciplines;org

  2. 2 Idetrorce December 16, 2007 at 2:13 am

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

  3. 4 Butterfly February 19, 2008 at 11:35 am

    Since this website is about Language Evolution – those browsing this website care!

  1. 1 Blog Archive : Creation, Destruction and the Spinplant: more from Friedrich Nietzsche » Masters of Media Trackback on October 9, 2007 at 9:47 pm

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