Implicit causality of action verbs at the interface between conceptual structure and discourse coherence relations

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Implicit causality of interpersonal transitive verbs (IC) pertains to preferences to attribute the cause of a given action to the subject or the object referent in active clauses. Causal attribution is operationalized as the probability of referential continuation in a subsequent explanatory clause. This paper presents an explorative investigation into the causal biases of action verbs, which in contrast to affective verbs have received less attention in IC research. We approach implicit causality as a discourse level phenomenon based on the textual level of discourse representation and enriched by conceptual knowledge. In study 1, we targeted IC effects of German action verbs (N = 52) in sentences containing causal, additive and adversative connectives. Results showed that IC based categories of subject-object-, and non-biasing predicates were clearly discernable in causal contexts only. In study 2, we examined effects of situational knowledge (physical affectedness & social acceptability) and affective appraisals (valence & arousal) represented in the conceptual structure of the verbs on the construal of causality biases and their interplay with immediate contextual information such as gender of referents. Results show that higher degrees of physical affectedness were associated with causal attribution to the object referent. This effect was modulated by the affective properties of the verbs. Our findings revealed the influence of physiological arousal, an affective dimension not considered in previous investigations of IC. Actions with a strong physical impact that were characterized by high arousal, e.g., kick, or tickle were more likely to be explained with reference to the subject. Participants also considered the available contextual information, as indicated by the significant interactions of gender information with arousal. Within the subsample of non-biasing verbs, higher estimates for social behavior increased probabilities of causal attributions to the subject.

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