Individual differences in the interpretation of ambiguous statements about time

Sarah E. Duffy 1  and Michele I. Feist 2
  • 1 Northumbria University, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Department of Humanities, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK
  • 2 University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Department of English, Lafayette, LA, USA


What factors influence the ways in which people resolve ambiguity? In English, two contrasting perspectives are implicit in deictic temporal expressions: the Moving Time metaphor conceptualizes time as moving forward towards the ego and the Moving Ego metaphor conceptualizes the ego as moving forward towards the future (Clark 1973). We examine the ambiguity arising from these two conceptualizations, claimed to be equally likely in a “neutral” context (Boroditsky and Ramscar 2002). Whereas previous studies have demonstrated that exposure to a spatial situation related to one interpretation may influence the resolution of the ambiguity (e.g. Boroditsky 2000; Nunez 2007), we focus on the lifestyle and personality factors of the participants as potential additional influences on ambiguity resolution in the interpretation of temporal metaphors. Experiment 1 asks whether lifestyle might influence an individual's approach to time and resulting resolution of temporal ambiguity, comparing preferred responses from two groups of participants with very different demands on the structuring of time: university students and administrators. We observed a difference between the two groups, with administrators more frequently adopting the Moving Time perspective and students, the Moving Ego perspective. Experiment 2 examines personality-related differences, focusing specifically on individual differences in procrastination (Lay 1986) and conscientiousness (John 1990). We observed a significant effect with participants who adopted the Moving Ego perspective reporting higher procrastination scores and lower conscientiousness scores than participants who adopted the Moving Time perspective. Experiment 3 investigates further personality-related differences, focusing specifically on individual differences in extroversion (John 1990). We observed a relationship between extroversion and disambiguation responses, with participants who adopted the Moving Ego perspective evidencing higher levels of extroversion. Taken together, the results from these three studies suggest that individual differences in lifestyle and personality may influence people's perspectives on the movement of events in time and their concomitant interpretation of temporally ambiguous utterances, precluding a universal “neutral” context within which language is interpreted.

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