Read some of the previous research findings from below. Results are also posted (more frequently) on the blog under the tag "findings".

Englishes of the World (2014)

Results of: WhichEnglish?


How do your grammar intuitions depend on when and where you learned English? Participants took a short grammar quiz, which we are using to understand how grammar differs in different parts of the English-speaking world (USA, Ireland, Australia, etc.). We are also investigating how grammar is different for people who learn English later in life: Do they make different mistakes if their first language is German as opposed to Japanese?


For a discussion of the purpose and background of the study, see this blog post.

Check out this visualization of our results so far. This visualization will be updated as more results come in, so check back later.


Check back soon. Analysis is ongoing...

The king frightened the page because he... (2012)

Results of: That Kind of Person


This experiment was one in a line of pronoun experiments, most of which were run on Amazon Mechanical Turk. Early summaries of the findings can be found here and here. This experiment was bundled into a larger paper on pronouns which will be published somewhere in 2013/2014. You can read a description of the paper, and find a link to the paper here.

How does pronoun interpretation compare across languages? (2012)

Results of: Угадай кто сликтопоз, 代名詞刑事


In these studies, we asked whether the relationship between verb meaning and pronoun interpretation that we reported previously was the same in other languages (for background, see this). Many previous studies have found that certain verbs affect the interpretation of pronouns:


(1) Sally frightens Mary because she...

(2) Sally loves Mary because she...


Although the pronoun is ambiguous, most people guess that she refers to Sally in (1) but Mary in (2). The question was whether verbs with similar meanings in different languages have the same effect.


Deciding what it means for two verbs in different languages to mean "the same thing" is difficult and stymied previous research. However, our recent results showing that entire groups of verbs reliably have the same effect on pronouns simplified the issue: we just needed to identify thesame groups of verbs across languages, which actually turns out to be easier (see the paper for details).


We collected new data in Japanese, Russian, and Mandarain (the Japanese and Russian studies were conducted on this website) and re-analyzed older results from English, Dutch, Italian, and Spanish. Our results were striking: we found the exact same results in each of the languages we looked at.


A more comprehensive description is here.


The paper is available here.


What do verbs have to do with pronouns? (2010)

Results of: Find the Dax


Unlike a proper name (Jane Austen), a pronoun (she) can refer to a different person just about every time it is uttered. While we occasionally get bogged down in conversation trying to interpret a pronoun (Wait! Who are you talking about?), for the most part we sail through sentences with pronouns, not even noticing the ambiguity.


We have been running a number of studies on pronoun understanding. One line of work looks at a peculiar contextual effect, originally discovered by Garvey and Caramazza in the mid-70s:


(1) Sally frightens Mary because she...

(2) Sally loves Mary because she...


Although the pronoun is ambiguous, most people guess that she refers to Sally in (1) but Mary in (2). That is, the verb used (frightens, loves) seems to affect pronoun resolution.


From the beginning, most if not all researchers agreed that this must have something to do with how verbs encode causality: "Sally frightens Mary" suggests that Sally is the cause, which is why you then think that "because she…" refers to Sally, and vice versa for "Sally loves Mary".


The problem was finding a predictive theory: which verbs encode causality which way? A number of theories have been proposed, but the data did not clearly support one over another. In part, the problem was that we had data on a small number of verbs, and as mathematicians like to tell us, you can draw an infinite number of lines a single point (and create many different theories to describe a small amount of data).


With the help of visitors to this website, we collected data on over 1000 verbs – far, far more than had ever been studied before. We found that in fact none of the existing theories worked very well. However, when we took in independently developed theory of verb meaning from linguistics, that actually predicted the results very well.


For a more detailed description, see this blog post.

You can read the paper here.

What are the funniest puns? (2010)

Results from: Puntastic


Terrible what makes one pun funny and another terrible? Beyond pure human interest, this is a scientific question. As a prelude to more detailed investigation of puns, GamesWithWords started by collecting a large body (2000+) of pun-based jokes and asking people to judge how funny each one was. In the future, we and other researchers can use these data to design new experiments.


We can also provide preliminary answers to some interesting questions. For instance, it was not the case that men like puns more than women or women than men. Because there is anecdotal evidence that people with autism particularly like puns, we included a question asking whether it's participant was "good at social situations" (we thought that people might feel more comfortable answering this in direct question); there was no difference in pun-liking based on this question either, which is either evidence against the hypothesis and puns and autism or just a result of our imperfect question.


For additional information and a list of the five best and five worst puns, see this report on the blog. To obtain the actual data, see this technical report.


Birth Order and Love (2009)

Results from: The Birth Order Survey


Pop psychology assures us that your birth order (oldest, middle, youngest, only) has a major effect on your personality. Many books have been written on the subject. It might surprise you, then, that scientists are not only not sure how birth order affects personality, they are divided on the question of whether birth order has any effect on personality.


In this study, we asked people about their own birth order and the birth order of their best friends and significant others, as well as the birth order of their parents. It turns out that people are slightly more likely to have a close friend or significant other/spouse of the same birth order. We think this suggests that birth order does in fact affect personality, though no doubt the debate will continue. It's important that the method we used -- especially the use of the Internet -- avoided some of the typical confounds of birth order studies.


Published findings (journal article).

Why is Visual Memory so Lousy?

Results from: The Memory Test


Visual working memory refers to our ability to remember what we see for short periods of time.  For instance, an artist uses her visual working memory to paint a picture -- she must remember the image she wants to reproduce long enough to paint.


Visual working memory appears to be much more limited than working memory for words. The typical educated adult in America can remember seven words at a time but only the look of four different objects (and even that number is controversial). Some people have managed to learn tricks so as to remember dozens of words at a time, but no similar feats have reported for visual memory.


In this paper, which included data from one of our online studies, we tried to determine if the problem is that visual memory is more susceptible to a particular type of interference (proactive interference). It's not. We'll have to look elsewhere for an answer.
Published findings (journal article). ........
A discussion of the study in our blog


Don't Think about a White Bear (2007)

Try not to think about a white bear.


If you are like the typical person, you just thought of a white bear. In fact, it is very hard to successfully try to not think about something. A recent study (Tsal & Makovski, 2006) extended this finding to vision: trying to ignore part of your visual field (such as everything on the left) actually causes you to pay more attention to it.


The way they actually tested this was to surprise participants by flashing a picture in the ignored area (such as on the left) so rapidly it was hard to make out. If people were paying extra attention to that area, they would be able to make out more of the image. To get enough data, they 'surprised' each participant a number of times, so it's not clear whether the participants were really surprised. So we (Makovski & Hartshorne) tried running a similar experiment on the Web, where each person would be surprised only once. The reuslts were unfortunately not clear enough for publication, but we did write up a brief report, linked to below.
lab report
report in everyday language


The Meaning of Actions

report in everyday language


     image credits