Taking the “Mis” out of Miscommunication

The question "It is not possible to remove all miscommunication from communication“ is important because it forces a synthesis of the code model of communication, pragmatic theories, and societal psychology. The question asks if it is possible to remove miscommunication from communication. Each of the current models for understanding communication is incomplete, but my joining them together and adding new thories, we can move towards removing all miscommunication from communication. The code model provides a framework for removing miscommunication in when broadcasting a message from point A to point B. Pragmatic theory provides an understanding of speaker intentions. Neither of the two communications theories explain well how a listener processes a message. I therefore draw from societal psychology, cultural evolution, cultural cognition, and heuristic theory to create a third theory- learned response theory, which provides the last part in understanding how to remove miscommunication from communication.

Theoretical Framework

What exactly is miscommunication? I will briefly introduce two theories which organise the analysis. \cite{Luhmann_1990} presents a three mechanisms which make communication improbable and provide a framework for how miscommunication could spring up. This theory ties into the pragmatist work of \cite{Austin_1975} who laid out a tripartite model of communication, breaking down speech acts into three parts. Illocution is the intended significance of the speaker. Locution is the actual speech act. Perlocution is the effect on the listener.

According to Luhmann, communication is improbable in three ways, information/understanding, utterance/broadcasting, and acceptance/success. Communication is improbable in the information/understanding sense insofar as interpretation is dependent on personal memories. Using the Austen framework, this would be a perlocution effect. Communication is improbable in the utterance/broadcasting sense in that the speaker and the listener may have different rules of exchange. Under the Austen framework, this would be a problem in locution. Finally, communication is improbable in the acceptance/success sense because there is no guarantee of the listener taking on the message. Under the Austen framework, this would be a problem of perlocution. I will apply three different theories, the code model, pragmatic theory, and learned response theory to solve the three sources of miscommunication.

#Code Model of Communication


The Code Model of communication is the product of a marriage between the message transmission framework laid out by Claude Shannon and the semiotic theories of Ferdinand de Saussre (Baecker). The Shannon and Weaver model focuses only on locution effects and both authors mused (Shannon 1963) that it could be made into a communication model with an addition of semiotic theory. They likely chose semiotic theory not because they thought it superior to other theories, but because many other theories did not yet exist when the book and article were written in the 1940's.

Claude Shannon developed his model (Shannon 1948) during WWII and were interested in efficiently using the limited phone and radio channels. From a military perspective, it is an excellent model. Generally, military orders are designed not to be ambiguous and both parties are trained in using the same words and phrasing. The model looks at communication as a conduit. The speaker decides which message to send. The information gives the message to a transmitter which transmits a signal to a receiver at the destination. Using Shannon's article as a base, William Weaver wrote Mathematical Theory of Communication (Shannon 1963) which popularised the model and expanded on the base model.

Under this model, the key to removing miscommunication is high redundancy. A message should be high predictable and conventional, conveying low information. A message with a lot of new information is one with entropy, which is harder to communicates successfully. An entropic message must be repeated many ways and the receiver must pay close attention to the message. When a large audience is to be reached, redundancy should be maximised while with a more specialised audience, more entropy may work. According to this model, a disciplined communicator can remove miscommunication.

For Shannon and Weaver, communications problems fall into three broad areas, channel deficiencies, encoding/decoding areas, and behavioural response errors. A channel deficiency occurs when the wrong channel is used. An encoding error occurs when a message is communicated imprecisely. A behavioural response error occurs when the the received meaning does not lead to the intended behaviour being received. Shannon and Weaver focus on the former two errors, which would be locution errors according to Austen. However they do not ignore differences in behaviour, a perlocution error according to the Austen model.
Shannon and Weaver’s model accurately describes military communications, where both the sender and receiver use the same words. They continued their work after the war for Bell Labs, which being a telephone company likely led them to focus on encoding errors. The core of the model is optimised for a context where intentions and the meanings of words are clear and precise. They account for behavioural errors, but they are added on to the model, rather than integral parts of the model. Furthermore, the simple chart (seen at the beginning of the section) is more easily accessible than the book and in business communications (Mishra), the nuance of the model is stripped out of it.

While the Shannon and Weaver model may work well in specialised contexts, like in military communications or any other communications with clear orders and definitions, it is less useful towards describing every-day communications. In the introduction to "The Mathematical Theory of Communication" (Shannon 1963) Shannon and Weaver make it clear that their model examines only the transmission of communication. They mused that it might be useful for semioticians (then the dominant school of communcation theory) who might then look at effects in intra-personal communication.

The Shannon and Weaver model can remove miscommunication, forcuses on only the transmission effects. The behavioural differences are accounted for in the model, but are not integral to the model. The behavioural and perlocution challenges are common to mass and everyday communications. Thus, by itself the Shannon and Weaver model can remove all miscommunication from certain types of communication, but not for all or even most communication. The Shannon and Weaver model is useful only for removing miscomunication in locution effects.

#Pragmatic Models
Unlike the Shannon and Weaver focused conduit model, there is no definitive pragmatic theory. Instead, there exist a handful of complementary theories. Early pragmatists focused on illocution while later pragmatists started to account for perlocution.

The early pragmatists, including Austen and Searle, focused on illocution. In “How to do Things with Words” early pragmatist J.L Austen developed speech act theory, which examined certain acts of speaking (weddings, funerals, convocations) as performances. Speech Act Theory was not focused on locution, taking for granted that the message will arrive from the sender to the receiver. Speech Act theory also did not focus on perlocution. For example, in his 1969 book “Speech Acts”, pragmatist John Searle argued, “In the case of illocutionary acts we succeed in doing what we are trying to do by getting our audience to recognize what we are trying to do. But the “effect” on the hearer is not a belief or a response, it consists simply in the hearer understanding the utterance of the speaker.” Effectively, he is stripping out perlocution from his analysis and redefining “effect on the hearer” as hearer understanding the utterance. By looking at ”understanding” Searle is looking to see that the hearer understands the illocution of the speaker. H.P. Grice further explored illocution with his implicature theory \cite{Grice_1979}. His theory built on the arguments of John Searle and agued that implicatures are inferences made by the hearer which implies a different meaning than the surface meaning. However, it assumes that that the speaker and the listener are cooperating. It does not account for the speaker trying to get inside the listener’s head and shape their thoughts.

Later pragmatists Sperber and Wilson brought in relevance theory \cite{Dan}, which begins to explain perlocutionary effects. Relevance theory argues that rather than the try to transmit precise thoughts to the reveiver, the speaker is sending out utterances. The receiver uses these utterances to try and guess what the receiver was thinking. According to the theory, the speaker is creating a mutual cognitive environment, from which the receiver draws understanding.

The pragmatists have a rosy view of communication which stops them from fully understanding communication and creating a model which would remove miscommunication. They attempt to remove manipulation from communication. Shaping perlocution is manipulation and only by understanding this manipulation can communication be removed. Shannon and Weaver focused on Locution and the Pragmatists focused on illocution. To understand perlocution we need a new theory.

#Learned Response Theory

To understand perlocution and predict the effect messages would have on the receiver, the sender would need an understanding of the receiver’s thought processes. Experiments in cultural cognition theory spearheaded by Yale Law professor Dan Kahan have shown that people’s cultural background changes their opinions \cite{Kahan_2012}. But, Kahan has an imprecise way of measuring culture groups (authoritarian, liberal, etc.) and resorts to matrixes to do so. A parallel theory runs in Societal Psychology which argues that we make decisions based on our environment and context.

I will draw from two more theories, cultural evolution and heuristics, to create a model by which to understand perlocution across groups of people and come closer to eliminating miscommunication from communication. Heuristic theory \cite{Tversky} is the idea that humans think using mental shortcuts rather than thinking everything out logically. However, the key Heuristic theorist today, Dan Khaneman looks at heuristics as something innate and shared across the species rather than a learned behaviour. In “Thinking Fast and Slow” he sees thought processes of a few dozen ivy league students as indicative of mankind. Instead of seeing these heuristics as something we are born with, the may instead be looked at with a cultural evolution lens. Cultural evolution is the idea that besides evolving with out genes, humans share different practices and idea as culture. Under this theory, stronger cultural practices grown and spread by something akin to natural selection while weaker processes die out. In "not by genes alone" Ritcherson and Boyd\cite{Richerson_2004} summarise culture as “Culture is socially learned information stored in individuals' brains that is capable of affecting behavior.” This definition is too hard to actually measure and then predict with the purpose of miscommunication. How can you tell what information is stored in people’s brains?

Instead of defining culture broadly as information stored in people’s brains, we can use a new, more precise unit of analysis: Learned responses. Instead of trying to look at what is in people’s brains, we can look at how they respond to messages. If the societal psychology and cultural evolution hypothesis are correct, these learned responses should spread in groups via something similar to an evolutionary process. With enough data, in theory you could research which learned responses people and groups are most likely use to the locution they receive and understand the perlocution effects. If the process worked, your could remove miscommunication from communication.

While they may seem like clashing schools of thought, pragmatics, the conduit model, and learned responses theories are all integral parts in solving the problem of removing miscommunication. Each can help remove miscommunication from a different part of Austen’s framework. Claude Shannon’s most basic model can remove miscommunication from locution. The pragmatists present solutions (implicature, speech act, etc) to understanding illocution. Finally, learned response theory, a product of cultural cognition, societal psychology, heuristics, and cultural evolution, might lead to an understanding of perlocution effects.
While we behavioural scientists have not yet succeeded in removing the mis from miscommunication, I believe that we have the necessary theories to do so. Now, empirical research is needed to see if the fusion of theories can solve the problem of miscommunication.


  1. Niklas Luhmann. Ökologische Kommunikation. Springer Nature, 1990. Link

  2. J.L. Austin. How To Do Things With Words. Oxford University Press (OUP), 1975. Link

  3. Dirk Baecker. 5 Systemic theories of communication. Walter de Gruyter GmbH Link

  4. Claude Elwood Shannon, Warren Weaver. The mathematical theory of communication. University of Illinois Press, 1963.

  5. C. E. Shannon. A Mathematical Theory of Communication. Bell System Technical Journal 27, 623–656 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), 1948. Link

  6. Sneha Mishra. Shannon and Weaver model of Communication.

  7. H. Paul Grice, Emmanuel Kant. Logique et conversation. Communications 30, 57–72 PERSEE Program, 1979. Link

  8. Sperber Dan, Wilson Deirdre, Deirdre Wilson, Dan Sperber. Rhetoric and relevance. 84–96 In Meaning and Relevance. Cambridge University Press (CUP) Link

  9. Dan M. Kahan. Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk. 725–759 In Handbook of Risk Theory. Springer Science \(\mathplus\) Business Media, 2012. Link

  10. Amos Tversky, Daniel Kahneman. Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. 3–20 In Judgment under uncertainty. Cambridge University Press (CUP) Link

  11. Peter J. Richerson, Robert Boyd. Not By Genes Alone. University of Chicago Press, 2004. Link

[Someone else is editing this]

You are editing this file