The Norms of Attention in Communication

Possible relations between perceptual attention and communication skills

Posted Dec 31, 2018

We have been arguing that conversational norms protect mutual trust, and that joint attention is essential to maintaining both. Gricean conversational maxims are linguistic norms that facilitate easy accessible and reliable linguistic exchanges. Here we delve a bit further and take a closer look at the details of both the linguistic norms and psychological processes that enable us participate in successful conversations.

Conversations are essentially cooperative linguistic endeavors where participants manifest implicit agreement to common norms. This agreement is rarely explicit, and we typically rely on fairly automatic forms of joint attention to establish agreement and determine the conversational background. This is psychologically important because cooperation requires joint commitment and mutually supporting beliefs between parties, and these psychological routines are best explained in terms of joint attention. What structures and controls produce these forms of joint attention? What linguistic patterns do these forms of joint attention manifest? Grice himself adds considerable detail to the linguistic norms, but we propose additional explanatory variables in the psychological mechanisms involved.

Below are the conversational maxims Grice uses to define and regulate talk exchanges. These norms can be seen as a ‘grammar of conversation’, although they are looser and more forgiving than most linguistic rules in grammar or semantics.

Quantity: “Make your contribution as informative as required. Don’t make your contribution more informative than is required.”

Quality: “Try to make your contribution one that is true. Don’t say what you believe to be false. Don’t say what you lack adequate evidence for.”

Relevance: “Be relevant. Avoid issues that are not pertinent to the conversation and could create confusion.”

Manner: “Be perspicuous. Avoid obscurity of expression. Avoid ambiguity. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity). Be orderly.”

We can now characterize talk exchanges as ‘maxim conforming linguistic exchanges’ and that the epistemic value of such exchanges depends on regular conformity to these maxims. Gricean talk exchanges thus create epistemically useful communicative spaces that we can easily enter and exit to pursue a variety of individual and collective interests. The stability of talk exchanges in a community also grounds an epistemic trust we can have in participants. Human communication generally depends on linguistic exchanges, but any type of successful communication, including communication patterns in other species, must depend on something like these maxims. But what exactly is the psychological mechanism behind these maxims?

One option is that these maxims are analogous to norms of attention for salience, relevance, and background. However, we still need an understanding of the psychological mechanisms at work in a collective way, because conversations are essentially social activities. If the relevant linguistic and attentional capacities are not sustained in healthy measure throughout a linguistic community, epistemically valuable linguistic exchanges will be hard to come by. Joint attention is required to have filtering, selection, and guidance functions that help improve our understanding of the psychological mechanisms here, which constitutes an important addition to the maxims.

Grice also made an essential contribution to pragmatics in his principle of conversational implicature. Implicature is something conveyed by an utterance that is not strictly ‘said’ given a standard interpretation of the words uttered. Relevance and selection (through attentional guidance) are essential to understand implicatures, but again, this requires some kind of joint attention in conversation, rather than an individualistic type of attention. Our attentional capacities must be up to the task of updating changes in conversational context to maintain maxim conformity in real time and nimbleness in determining implicature content through automatic inferences. Talk exchanges carry a considerable psychological demand on their participants and the linguistic community as a whole.

Grice coined the term conversational implicature for meanings that are conveyed in an utterance even though they are not formally stated. Grice proposed a fairly sophisticated logic for working out implicature content (from Logic and Conversation, 1975): “He has said that P; there is no reason to suppose that he is not observing the maxims, or at least the Cooperative Principle; he could not be doing this unless he thought that q; he knows (and knows that I know that he knows) that I can see that the supposition that believing q is required; he has done nothing to stop me thinking that q; he intends me to think, or is at least willing to allow me to think, that q; and so he has implicated that q.” (For important details and clarification about the difference of what is said and what is meant, in relation to the concept of implicature, see Bach, 1994, 2006).

Source: suju/pixabay

Attention explains how informational backgrounds are related to conversational maxims, the way attention routines are related to relevant features of the environment. Joint attention is at the basis of more complex conversational exchanges. The Gricean maxims seem to be very complicated and the rules very difficult to follow, particularly when it comes to linguistic phenomena like implicature. But these maxims have cognitive precursors in the more basic perceptual mechanisms for attention. The norms for conversational exchanges, the conversational maxims, depend on the filtering and salience features of perceptual attention, particularly in joint attention for communication. Investigating how these forms of joint attention evolved in different species and carefully tracing the origins of the maxims to features of attention routines is an important project for contemporary psychology and neuroscience. This investigation could reveal profound continuities between perceptual attention and communication, including conversation and implicature.

In the last few entries, we have explored the relationship between attention, particularly joint attention, and the constraints on successful conversational exchanges. In the following ones, we revisit the relation between consciousness and attention. Our focus will be on the relationship between consciousness and information.

Abrol Fairweather, Carlos Montemayor, and Harry H. Haladjian


Bach, K. (1994). Conversational impliciture, Mind and Language, 9: 124–62.

Bach, K. (2006). The top 10 misconceptions about implicature, in B. Birner & G. Ward (eds.), Drawing the Boundaries of Meaning: Neo-Gricean Studies in Pragmatics and Semantics in Honor of Laurence R. Horn, pp. 21–30, Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Fairweather A. and Montemayor, C. (2017). Knowledge, Dexterity, and Attention: A Theory of Epistemic Agency. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Grice, P. (1975) “Logic and Conversation,” in The Logic of Grammar, D. Davidson and G. Harman (eds), Encino, CA: Dickenson, 64–75.