Reconciling Truthfulness and Relevance as Epistemic and Decision-Theoretic Utility

Theodore R. Sumers, Mark K. Ho, Thomas L. Griffiths, Robert D. Hawkins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


People use language to influence others’ beliefs and actions. Yet models of communication have diverged along these lines, formalizing the speaker’s objective in terms of either the listener’s beliefs or actions. We argue that this divergence lies at the root of a longstanding controversy over the Gricean maxims of truthfulness and relevance. We first bridge the divide by introducing a speaker model which considers both the listener’s beliefs (epistemic utility) and their actions (decision-theoretic utility). We show that formalizing truthfulness as an epistemic utility and relevance as a decision-theoretic utility reconciles the tension between them, readily explaining puzzles such as context-dependent standards of truthfulness. We then test a set of novel predictions generated by our model. We introduce a new signaling game which decouples utterances’ truthfulness and relevance, then use it to conduct a pair of experiments. Our first experiment demonstrates that participants jointly maximize epistemic and decision-theoretic utility, rather than either alone. Our second experiment shows that when the two conflict, participants make a graded tradeoff rather than prioritizing one over the other. These results demonstrate that human communication cannot be reduced to influencing beliefs or actions alone. Taken together, our work provides a new foundation for grounding rational communication not only in what we believe, but in what those beliefs lead us to do.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)194-230
Number of pages37
JournalPsychological Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - Aug 17 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Psychology


  • decision theory
  • Gricean maxims
  • pragmatics
  • rational models of communication
  • relevance


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