I apologise if this as been asked before, but I couldn't find anything online.

Whenever there is an exchange of information from one person to another - such as if someone is speaking to someone else in a conversation, or if someone is reading a book from an author - the chain of events goes like this:

  1. Person A has a thought inside their mind.
  2. Person A tries to map their thought to something physical to use to communicate (e.g. English speech, French writing, a drawing).
  3. Person B tries to interpret the physical communication by mapping it to thought inside their own mind.

However the initial thought inside Person A's mind is not necessarily the same thought that Person B ends up thinking it is. Is there a term to describe this?

The reason the initial thought and final thought can be different is because of accumulated errors in steps 2 and 3. I would call error generated by step 2 miscommunication and error generated by step 3 misinterpretation, but I'm not sure if I'm using this terms correctly. If I am, then another way to ask my question is whether there is a word to describe the combined effect of miscommunication and misinterpretation?


2 Answers 2


Note: this is not a psychology-based answer

I think your question is one of the central questions of various fields. For regular communications, they are communication studies, media studies, semiotics, journalism. For "intellectual" texts, they are hermeneutics and reception theory. The difference between the last two may be in the kind of books. Hermeneutics is more about biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts, while reception theory is more about literature texts. In the Stack Exchange network we have these dedicated sites for those fields: Biblical Hermeneutics, Literature.

In semiotics, the gap you are mentioning is called aberrant decoding. In literature theory, the set of expectations of a person is called horizon of expectation. I believe the gap between the author and the reader is called fusion of horizons.


Short answer
From a clinical audiological perspective, we talk about impaired speech understanding/recognition/discrimination.

From a psychophysical point of view, and specifically in the realm of clinical audiology where we deal with speech testing for people with impaired hearing, there are a number of speech tests available that measure slightly different things. These speech tests can be performed in silence where words may be misunderstood due to the presentation of background noise, or because of hearing impairments.

Speech understanding can be loosely defined as knowing the meaning of what was said by the target speaker. This involves listening, recognizing speech and interpreting it at a higher level using associative thinking. An example sentence of a simple listening test would be 'The students are protesting against nuclear weapons'. The sentence is meaningful and the relation between the elements of the sentence can help the listener to understand the sentence, even when parts of the sentence are not heard due to for instance background noise, or hearing loss. For instance, if you know it's about a protest of students and you hear 'nuclear', but the weapons is not heard, it can still be interpreted from the context.

However, more is up to this when you change the task from simply repeating the sentence, to asking :'Why do the students protest'? The answer should be that nuclear weapons are a danger for mankind (for instance), but if for some reason the test subject is unaware of that, or doesn't know what nuclear weapons are, there is impaired speech understanding.

If it is not the understanding being tested, but the listener simply has to repeat back what was heard, we talk about speech recognition testing. When a word in the sentence was simply not heard due to noise for instance, and can't be deduced from the sentence, say in a digit-in-noise test (Smits et al, 2013) where only random numbers are being used without context ('two -nine-eight) there is impaired speech recognition.

If a closed set of words is used to generate sentences that is beknown to the listener, e.g., the Matrix test (Houben et al., 2014), then it is not speech understanding or recognition being tested, but strictly spoken it is word discrimination being measured instead. Errors are now, well no wonder, called impaired speech discrimination.

- Smits et al., JASA (2013); 133: 1693
- Houben et al., Int J Audiol (2014); 53(10)


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