In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Game Theory in Pragmatics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Iterated Pragmatic Reasoning
  • Emergence, Adaptation, and Evolution
  • Learned and Neural Pragmatic Models

Linguistics Game Theory in Pragmatics
Thomas Brochhagen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0277


Game theoretic approaches to pragmatics characterize pragmatic inference as a product of interlocutors’ reasoning about their own and others’ possible linguistic choices. These choices are a function of their preferences over communicative outcomes. They are a product of what is communicated and how it is communicated, sometimes also factoring in beliefs about others’ preferences and beliefs. For instance, a speaker may prefer to bring a message across in a polite manner rather than in a more straightforward one, or succinctness may be preferred over long-windedness. At a more fundamental level, a speaker’s goal may be to convey his or her beliefs truthfully, or, the goal may be to deceive one’s audience. Hearers can have other, possibly opposed, preferences. Such subjective preference measures—captured by so-called utility functions—can thereby characterize a wide array of communicative scenarios, ranging from fully cooperative ones to ones with conflicts of interest. They also do away with the need to explicitly formulate conversational principles. Instead, pragmatic inference is directly rooted in interlocutors’ preferences and beliefs. Another cornerstone of game-theoretic approaches to pragmatics is that they often make the degree of mutual reasoning that interlocutors engage in explicit. While the simplest reasoners take only themselves as their reference point, more sophisticated ones iteratively reason about their partner’s choices and reasoning. A final key component common to these approaches is that they take a stance on interlocutors’ rationality: the degree to which they care about matters such as communicative success or manner. While some approaches assume full rationality, with interlocutors always acting according to what best fulfills their preferences, others weaken this assumption to allow for deviations. This makes them particularly suitable to predict and inform empirical data.

General Overviews

Franke and Jäger 2014 and Benz and Stevens 2018 are general overviews encompassing both fully rational and probabilistic approaches. Goodman and Frank 2016 mainly discusses probabilistic approaches, with a focus on the Rational Speech Act model, and Franke and Jäger 2016 focuses on general motivations of probabilistic pragmatic models. Benz, et al. 2006 is a seminal collection of early game-theoretic approaches to pragmatics. Most of these overviews focus on fully cooperative communication. Franke, et al. 2012 instead looks at different degrees of conflict under a pragmatic lens. Lastly, an overview of conceptual and methodological vantage points afforded by an evolutionary perspective on game-theoretic pragmatic inquiry is given in Franke 2017.

  • Benz, A., G. Jäger, and R. van Rooij, eds. 2006. Game theory and pragmatics. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230285897

    Seminal collection of game-theoretic approaches to pragmatics. The first chapter gives an introduction to game theory geared toward linguists. A good starting point for readers interested in applications and early analyses in a budding field.

  • Benz, A., and J. Stevens. 2018. Game-theoretic approaches to pragmatics. Annual Review of Linguistics 4.1: 173–191.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-linguistics-011817-045641

    Particularly recommendable for a linguistically-minded audience interested in fundamental concepts of game theory. These details are often backgrounded in more contemporary overviews. This work also gives an updated and accessible overview of prominent models, including the Iterated Best Response model, Error models, the Rational Speech Act model, and the Optimal Assertions model.

  • Franke, M. 2017. Game theory in pragmatics: Evolution, rationality, and reasoning. In Oxford research encyclopedia of linguistics. Edited by Mark Aranoff. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199384655.013.202

    Comprehensive introduction to evolutionary perspectives in game-theoretic pragmatics. This work focuses on evolutionary, rationalistic, and probabilistic approaches to pragmatics, highlighting both differences and synergies. The code that accompanies this work is useful to review and apply these concepts.

  • Franke, M., and G. Jäger. 2014. Pragmatic back-and-forth reasoning. In Pragmatics, semantics and the case of scalar implicatures. Edited by Salvatore Pistoia Reda, 170–200. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137333285.0011

    Introduction to game-theoretic pragmatics with a focus on iterated reasoning models. The discussion on how these models compare to other approaches (e.g., Gricean and Neo-Gricean theories, Bidirectional Optimality Theory, or the Intentions First approach) is particularly useful to situate this approach in the broader pragmatics literature.

  • Franke, M., and G. Jäger. 2016. Probabilistic pragmatics, or why Bayes’ rule is probably important for pragmatics. Zeitschrift für Sprachwissenschaft 35.1: 3–44.

    DOI: 10.1515/zfs-2016-0002

    Accessible overview geared toward a general linguistics audience. It highlights ties to Gricean pragmatics and main motivations of probabilistic approaches to pragmatics.

  • Franke, M., T. De Jager, and R. van Rooij. 2012. Relevance in cooperation and conflict. Journal of Logic and Computation 22.1: 23–54.

    DOI: 10.1093/logcom/exp070

    While game theory naturally lends itself to making predictions about communication under conflict of interests between interlocutors, this area of research has received much less attention than fully cooperative scenarios. This work motivates a pragmatic outlook on the topic.

  • Goodman, N. D., and M. C. Frank. 2016. Pragmatic language interpretation as probabilistic inference. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 20.11: 818–829.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2016.08.005

    General introduction to the Rational Speech Act model. It offers a comprehensive overview of the kinds of phenomena that have been characterized using this model, and of its extensions. Written for a cognitive science audience.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.