Cohort Competition

Although nobody’s been keeping track, I think I can safely bet that I’ve heard and said the word cohort more times in the past month than I have in the previous 287 combined. There are two reasons for which I believe this.

The first reason is that in graduate school, a cohort refers primarily to the group of students in a program that matriculates in the same year. In high school and college, this is called a class, as in “Class of 2012”. This can sometimes lead to confusion, since saying, “She was in my class” could mean that she was in the same year as me or that she sat next to me in Intro Phonetics. This ambiguity is done away with by using the word cohort.

In my cohort, there are seven smart individuals who hail from five different states and one territory in two countries. We get along well and spend quite a bit of our time in the cozy little Linguistics Library folding origami cranes, working on problem sets, and sneaking bites of lunch in a space that technically is to be food-free. We’ve also had study group sessions at each others’ houses and one delightful movie night (hopefully the first of many). I like my cohort. That’s why I keep talking about them and referring to them as “so-and-so in my cohort–” and then my friends keep asking, “What’s a cohort?”

The second reason has to do with something I’ve been learning in my psycholinguistics seminar. Linguists want to figure out the mechanism that allows us to turn a sound we hear into a word that we understand. When our ears pick up a signal, it’s really just sound waves; there are no letters or ideas present in them. So how do we recognize strings of sounds as words?

One of the earliest proposed mechanisms is called the Cohort Model1. In this model, we perceive a word in increments and then narrow down the possible choices of words that we’re hearing as time (in fractions of milliseconds) passes. For example, you hear the initial sound of an as-of-yet-unidentified word: “d-“. It could be anything, really — dart, deck, dawn, dopamine. Then, you hear the next sound: “de-“. This narrows down your choices; dart is no longer a plausible option, but deck still is, as are debt, desert, and Devanagari. Finally, you process that you’ve heard a “k” sound, and you can conclude that you’ve actually heard the word deck, all the competing cohort words having been struck out.

Cohort words can interact in interesting ways. Recent psycholinguistics research shows that during word recognition, the greater the number of closely-related words in a target word’s cohort, the more difficult it becomes to identify it2, because there are many words competing to be a plausible target. However, during word production — that is, the process of a word going from thought to speech — the same “crowded cohort” actually increases speed and accuracy in naming a target word. This is known as the Neighborhood Density Effect3.

Let’s look at that again: during production, cohorts help each other, but when it comes to recognition, cohorts cause competition.

Hm… May I turn this into a tongue-in-cheek analogy? My six smart fellow first-years and I are Ph.D.’s in the making. We’re like cohorts in production, and we’ve been helping each other out. In six years, though, our paradigm-shifting contributions to the sum of all human knowledge are going to have to be recognized (i.e., we’re going to need to be hired!), and that’s when the competition’s going to happen! Only so many papers can be published, only so many teaching positions can be filled… But to be more realistic, it’s a good thing that my cohort members don’t all have the same research interests or career goals, so I don’t think we’ll actually behave according to models of word production and recognition. (At least the analogy will help me remember some key facts for my exams!)

Do you tend to consider your peers (classmates or coworkers) as competitors or fellows working toward a common goal?


Word of the Day: cutthroat, a compound word in use since at least 1535 that means a murderer or otherwise cruel and undisciplined person, such as a highway robber who may or may not literally cut the throats of his victims. As an adjective, cutthroat can mean murderous or cruel, but in a different context, it can refer to extremely fierce, ruthless competition. Since the mid-nineteenth century, Cutthroat has been used as the name for a variety of games in which everyone plays for themselves rather than on teams. It seems to apply mostly to three-player card games, but I’ve only heard it used to refer to three-player billiards. “Wanna play Cutthroat?” “Nah, I’d rather play nice.”

– – –
1Marslen-Wilson, 1987
2Vitevich & Luce, 1998
3Stemberger, 2004


About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
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