Dr. Roland Mühlenbernd

Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft (ZAS)

Dr. Roland Mühlenbernd is a senior researcher in the DFG project A05 Modeling Meaning-Driven Register Variation within the framework of the SFB 1412 Register: Language-Users’ Knowledge of Situational-Functional Variation / Research Area 4 ‘Semantics & Pragmatics’.

He is particularly interested in the question of how individual behavior affects social conventions and norms. With regard to human language, he would like to gain insights into why speakers and listeners make certain decisions in language production and perception, and how these decisions affect the language system in the long term. For this purpose, he develops (especially game-theoretic) communication models and examines them (i) using solution concepts from (evolutionary) game theory, (ii) through computational approaches, and (iii) through artificial language experiments. He is particularly interested in questions within the linguistic research areas of language change/language evolution and semantics/pragmatics.


A05 Modeling meaning-driven register variation: Politeness and face management


ZAS, Pariser Str. 1, 10719 Berlin

+49 30 20192 412

muehlenbernd@leibniz-zas.deWebsite https://orcid.org/0000-0002-3669-4003

Publications & Presentations


  • Mühlenbernd, Roland; Wacewicz, Slawomir; Zywiczyński, Przemyslaw  (2022) The evolution of ambiguity in sender—receiver signaling games  In: Games [DOI] [PDF] [ViVo]
    We study an extended version of a sender–receiver signaling game—a context-signaling (CS) game that involves external contextual cues that provide information about a sender’s private information state. A formal evolutionary analysis of the investigated CS game shows that ambiguous signaling strategies can achieve perfect information transfer and are evolutionarily stable. Moreover, a computational analysis of the CS game shows that such perfect ambiguous systems have the same emergence probability as non-ambiguous perfect signaling systems in multi-agent simulations under standard evolutionary dynamics. We contrast these results with an experimental study where pairs of participants play the CS game for multiple rounds with each other in the lab to develop a communication system. This comparison shows that unlike virtual agents, human agents clearly prefer perfect signaling systems over perfect ambiguous systems.
  • Mühlenbernd, Roland; Solt, Stephanie  (2022) Modeling (im)precision in context  In: Linguistics Vanguard [DOI] [PDF] [ViVo]
    Abstract Speakers’ choice between linguistic alternatives often depends on the situation, a prime example involving level of precision at which numerical information is communicated. We report on a production study in which participants report the time of an event in two different situations, and demonstrate that the results can be reproduced by a probabilistic game-theoretical model in which the speaker’s choice reflects a tradeoff between informativity, accuracy and hearer-oriented simplification. These findings shed light on the pragmatics of (im)precision, and the dynamics of situationally driven pragmatic variation more generally.
  • Mühlenbernd, Roland; Wacewicz, Slawomir; Zywiczyński, Przemyslaw  (2021) Politeness and reputation in cultural evolution  In: Linguistics and Philosophy [DOI] [PDF] [ViVo]
    Politeness in conversation is a fascinating aspect of human interaction that directly interfaces language use and human social behavior more generally. We show how game theory, as a higher-order theory of behavior, can provide the tools to understand and model polite behavior. The recently proposed responsibility exchange theory (Chaudhry and Loewenstein in Psychol Rev 126(3):313–344, 2019) describes how the polite communications of thanking and apologizing impact two different types of an agent’s social image: (perceived) warmth and (perceived) competence. Here, we extend this approach in several ways, most importantly by adding a cultural-evolutionary dynamics that makes it possible to investigate the evolutionary stability of politeness strategies. Our analysis shows that in a society of agents who value status-related traits (such as competence) over reciprocity-related traits (such as warmth), both the less and the more polite strategies are maintained in cycles of cultural-evolutionary change.
  • Presentations

  • Mühlenbernd, Roland  (2021) The evolution of ambiguity in communication systems  In: Protolang 7, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf [ViVo]
  • Mühlenbernd, Roland  (2021) Politeness and reputation  In: Workshop on Oppressive Speech, Societies and Norms (Theme 3: Social Meaning & Semantics/Pragmatics of Harmful Speech), Berlin, Germany [ViVo]
  • Baumann, Andreas; Mühlenbernd, Roland  (2021) Population-level models of evolutionary pragmatics  In: Evolutionary Pragmatics Forum (virtual) [ViVo]