Psychological Research

, Volume 72, Issue 5, pp 553–566 | Cite as

Dealing with indeterminacy in spatial descriptions

  • Jean-Baptiste Van der HenstEmail author
  • Coralie Chevallier
  • Walter Schaeken
  • Hugo Mercier
  • Ira Noveck
Original Article


How do people tackle indeterminate spatial descriptions, that is those descriptions for which several representations are possible? Take for instance the two following statements: B is to the left of A, C is to the left of A. This description is indeterminate because it is compatible with at least two possibilities: (1) C B A; (2) B C A. Studies on human reasoning have shown that people tend to reduce the complexity of such indeterminate descriptions by representing only one possibility. Which one do people favour? Is one possibility easier to work out than the other? Is one possibility more plausible than the other? Two competing hypotheses make different predictions about the representation people favour. If the building of the representation is driven by what we call manipulation difficulty, then (1) is more likely to be constructed than (2) because (2) results from reorganising the representation following the first statement where B is adjacent to A (i.e. B A) while (1) is just an extension of this initial representation. However, if the representation process is driven by pragmatic factors, then (2) is more likely to be built than (1) because the second statement could be interpreted as implicating “C is not to the left of B”. Indeed, if C had been to the left of B it would have been more appropriate to utter, “C is to the left of B” rather than “C is to the left of A”. Data from several experiments show that both manipulation difficulty and pragmatic factors play a role in determining participants’ representations.


Mental Model Spatial Description Pragmatic Representation Determinate Description Mental Model Theory 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We thank Karl Christoph Klauer, Maxwell Roberts and one anonymous reviewer for their thorough reading of our manuscript and for their helpful suggestions. We are indebted to Guy Politzer for having suggested us the pragmatic analysis we present in the paper. Finally, we are grateful to Frédéric Vermeulin for his help in collecting the data of Experiment 4.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jean-Baptiste Van der Henst
    • 1
    Email author
  • Coralie Chevallier
    • 1
  • Walter Schaeken
    • 2
  • Hugo Mercier
    • 3
  • Ira Noveck
    • 1
  1. 1.L2C2 Laboratoire Langage, Cerveau et Cognition. UMR 5230, Institut des Sciences CognitivesCentre National de la Recherche Scientifique – Université de LyonBron CedexFrance
  2. 2.Laboratory of Experimental PsychologyUniversity of LeuvenLeuvenBelgium
  3. 3.Institut Jean NicodParisFrance

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