Adults look for intended meanings in messages, kids interpret them literally

November 28, 2001

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- When researchers here asked children and adults a series of ridiculously simple questions about the senses, they discovered something unexpected: the children scored higher than the adults.

The questions were as basic as "Do you see with your ears?" Children usually answered correctly, saying that you can't.

But adults sometimes would answer that you can see with your ears. The reason, the Ohio State University researchers found, is tied to the adult use of metaphor. As children become adults, they stop taking everything literally and are able to discern the intended meanings in day-to-day conversation.

"Presumably, the answers to the questions were so obvious to adults that the adults interpreted the questions metaphorically," said Gerald Winer, leader of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

AS children grow older, they begin to grasp and use metaphors, an ability that reflects a sharpening of cognitive and linguistic skills. It also suggests an improved understanding of social behavior and the subtleties of human interaction, Winer said.

Winer and his colleagues reported their findings in a recent issue of the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research.

The researchers gave a set of simple questions to two groups - one comprising children in third and fifth grades and the other comprising college students. The questionnaire asked: "Do you see with your fingers?" "Do you touch with your eyes?" "Do you hear with your nose?".

Almost all the children answered correctly, responding to the literal meaning of the questions. The majority of the college students got the answers wrong -- literally speaking, that is.

In a second part of the study, the researchers asked both groups the same questions, only this time, the college students were told that that their answers would be evaluated alongside the responses given by the children. In other words, the college students were given a reason to treat the questions literally. They responded with the correct answers this time, just like the children.

"Earlier, the older group was answering the questions in a metaphorical sense," Winer said.

One college student, for example, responded to the question: "Can you hear with your eyes?" with the explanation that it was possible to "see a dog barking without having to hear it." Responding to the question "Can you hear with your nose?", another student said "You can sniff out trouble."

Winer says the results of the study fit into a theory on logic and conversation that suggests when adults talk to each other, they don't respond to the literal meaning of a message, but to what they think is the intended meaning.

"When I ask my 18-year-old nephew "Can you pass me the salt", he doesn't just look up at me and say 'yes, I can pass the salt'," Winer said. "He assumes that I am asking him to actually pass me the salt."

Adults are more inclined to engage in this interpretive quality of language while kids are more likely to be literalists. As kids grow up, Winer said, they become less literal in their interpretation of everyday conversation and begin to respond metaphorically to language.

"We know that as kids get older, they get brighter, become more symbolic and capable of abstract thinking," Winer said. "They also begin to understand people and social situations better."

The shedding of literalism, Winer said, could be an outcome of all these aspects of development.
Contact: Gerald Winer, (614) 292-3041,

Written by: Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, (614) 292-8456,

Ohio State University

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