Although, evolutionarily, language emerged predominantly for social purposes, much has yet to be uncovered regarding how language processing is affected by social context. Social presence research studies the ways in which the presence of a conspecific affects processing, but has yet to be thoroughly applied to language processes. The principal aim of this study was to see how syntactic and semantic language processing might be subject to mere social presence effects by studying Event-Related brain Potentials (ERP).
In a sentence correctness task, participants read sentences with a semantic or syntactic anomaly while being either alone or in the mere presence of a confederate. Compared to the alone condition, the presence condition was associated with an enhanced N400 component and a more centro-posterior LAN component (interpreted as an N400). The results seem to imply a boosting of heuristic language processing strategies, proper of lexico-semantic operations, which actually entails a shift in the strategy to process morphosyntactic violations, typically based on algorithmic or rule-based strategies. The effects cannot be related to increased arousal levels.
The apparent enhancement of the activity in the precuneus while in presence of another person suggests that the effects conceivably relate to social cognitive and attentional factors. The present results suggest that understanding language comprehension would not be complete without considering the impact of social presence effects, inherent to the most natural and fundamental communicative scenarios.