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AQA GCSE Psychology Language, Thought and Communication

This section provides revision resources for AQA GCSE psychology and the Language, Thought and Communication chapter. The revision notes cover the AQA exam board and the new specification. As part of your GCSE psychology course, you need to know the following topics below within this chapter:

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What is the Relationship Between Language and Thought?

For language, thought and communication, the GCSE psychology specification states you need to know the following for this section:

  • Piaget’s theory: language depends on thought.
  • The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: thinking depends on language.
  • Variation in recall of events and recognition of colours, eg in Native American cultures.
Relationship between language and thought

A big difference between humans and other animals is our ability to use language to communicate. Animals do use communication however they do not use a language as humans do.

Research also seems to indicate that animals are unable to use complex thoughts which may mean that language and thoughts are connected as it is evident among humans. There are different theories that attempt to explain the relationship between language and thought; the two we will be focusing on are:

  • Piaget’s theory: language depends on thought
  • Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

Piaget’s Theory: Language Depends on Thought

We covered Piaget’s theory in the GCSE psychology development topic, however, it is also relevant here.

Piaget’s work was important as it helped us understand how humans develop cognitively and he believed this cognitive development also led to the growth of language. This would mean that we are only able to use language at a level that matches our cognitive development.

According to Piaget’s theory, children will develop language in four stages:

Piagets Theory of Cognitive Development
  1. In the sensorimotor stage, babies are still discovering what their bodies can do, including the ability to make sounds. Babies then learn to copy the sounds they hear other people making.
  2. At the pre-operational stage, children are egocentric and focus only on themselves. They use the language they have developed to voice their internal thoughts, rather than to communicate with other people.
  3. During the concrete operational stage, the ability to use language has developed significantly however children use it to talk about actual concrete things.
  4. Once children reach the formal operational stage, they can use language to talk about abstract, theoretical ideas.

Piaget believed that while all children move through these stages, some people do not get to the formal operational stage.

Evaluating Piaget’s theory: Language Depends on Thought

There are various criticisms of Piaget’s theory that undermines its validity, such as:

  • Piaget created his theory based on the observation of his own children. As they were his own, they were unlikely to be aware that they were being observed as part of a study making the behaviour more natural. 
  • However, an issue with this is Piaget may have let his own personal biases affect his judgement on what he was seeing. This lack of objectivity would affect the validity of his findings.
  • Piaget also recorded his observations on his own. The findings would be more reliable if the observations were recorded using another researcher so they could compare results. If the results were similar, they would have inter-observer reliability however if they were different it would prove that the study lacked consistency and reliability. As he did not do this, there is the argument that the findings lack reliability and validity.
  • The sample Piaget used was small and much of his research was based on observing his own children. Therefore his findings cannot be generalised and said to apply to all children.

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was developed by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf and is also sometimes referred to as the concept of Linguistic Relativity.

This theory states that our thoughts and behaviours are affected and formed by the language we speak.  This would mean that cultures with different languages and vocabulary will have very different ways of thinking and understanding things.

As part of their theory, Sapir-Whorf suggested that language may, therefore:

  • Lead us to focus on certain ways of seeing and understanding things.
  • Make some ways of thinking easier and more likely than others.
  • Lead to a memory bias whereby the ability to recall or retrieve certain information is increased or decreased.

Sapir-Whorf provided evidence for their hypothesis by studying indigenous languages. Whorf compared Native American languages with English and used the Hopi’s as an example due to their use of different words for “time” and the Eskimo’s large number of words for “snow”.

The theory suggests that the language we speak influences how we focus, see and understand things. For example, even within the same language, there are cultural and generational differences in the way words are understood. Take a phone or camera, they are now very different compared to the previous generations and this will ultimately affect how people think about them.

The Sapir-Whorf theory also suggests that through being familiar with recent meanings of words as they evolve, this will likely affect how people make connections as to their meanings. For example, if you were tasked with writing a description for the words “orange” and “cloud”, you may write about them being more than just a fruit and a cloud in the sky. You may refer to the fact that Orange is a mobile phone company and “cloud” also refers to a form of storage for data.

Below is a great explanation that breaks down Linguistic Relativity, aka Sapir-Whorf’s theory, in an easy to understand way:

Evaluating Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

  • Sapir and Whorf’s hypothesis has been criticised and some of their methods have been deemed unreliable, for example, Eskimo’s have approximately the same number of words for snow as people who speak English. Whorf also never met anyone from the Hopi tribe himself.
  • Books and other forms of written literature can be translated into completely different languages without them losing their meaning to readers.
  • People who may grow up without a language, or those that lose the ability to speak such as stroke victims, are still able to think.

Variation in Recognition of Colours

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests the language we speak can lead us to focus on certain ways of seeing things. The theory argues that this can make some ways of thinking more likely than others.

Some languages do not distinguish between colour variations. For example, The Tarahumara Native Americans from north-western Mexico, have one word for both blue and green. Researchers found that English speakers perceived bigger differences between shades of blues and green than Tarahumara speakers.

The Russian language also has different words for lighter and darker blues. Researchers found that Russian speakers were more likely than English speakers to recognise differences between two shades of blue.

Variation in Recall of Events

The Sapir-Whorf theory suggests our ability to recall certain information is affected by the language we speak.

Researchers have studied how English speakers and Spanish speakers described intended and accidental actions. Participants were asked about things like seeing someone accidentally bump and knock over a vase. When the action was intended, all the participants were able to correctly identify the person responsible. When the action was accidental, English speakers were able to identify the person correctly more often than Spanish speakers.

English speakers also had a much better recall of who was involved in accidental actions than Spanish speakers when the participants recall of intended action was tested.

Differences Between Human and Animal Communication

For Differences Between Human and Animal Communication, the GCSE Psychology specification states you need to know the following:

  • Limited functions of animal communication (survival, reproduction, territory, food).
  • Von Frisch’s bee study.
  • Properties of human communication not present in animal communication, eg plan ahead and discuss future events.

Animals don’t use language to communicate as humans do, however, they do use a form of vocalisation which is a form of communication with sound.

Birds, for example, sing, insects chirp while animals like lions or cats may growl. The messages conveyed by animals through vocalisation are similar to what humans may communicate such as expressing interest in a mate, showing alarm or letting others know they need to back off.

Research into animal communication has also found similarities between non-verbal communication between humans and animals. For example, in primates, similarities include the use of facial expressions to convey emotion, using body posture to show dominance or submission and the use of touch for bonding and reassurance.

Here’s a good video discussing animal communication:

Limited functions of animal communication

As the video above shows, research into animal communication has shown that it is far more complex and elaborate than we initially thought.

In general, however, animals do use communication for far few purposes than humans do and we can break this down into four main reasons: survival, reproduction, territory and food.


Animals use communication in a number of ways to aid in their survival. 

For example, animals may call to their young should they wander away, use alarm calls to warn others of the presence of a predator or use threat signals such as showing their teeth, making themselves look bigger and growling, to warn others to back away.


Animals communicate to aid in reproduction and do so not necessarily through sound but actions and displays.

For example, some animals use colour displays (such as peacocks and their colourful tails) to attract a mate and ensure reproduction. Other animals may also use colours to frighten or warn off predators.


Research by Karl von Frisch found that bees communicated to each other on where to find food using dance-like movements. 

Ants have also been found to communicate with one another using different chemical smells called pheromones. Pheromones can be used to convey a variety of different messages including the location of food.

Other research has found that rhesus monkeys made unbroken eye contact and began to behave aggressively as a means to show dominance. Eye contact is believed to be used as a way to display dominance by the monkeys because they perceived the researchers as threatening.

Karl Von Frisch’s Bee Study 1950

Aim: To investigate how bees communicate the location of a food source to each other.

Study design: A field experiment was conducted in real-world settings. The participants, in this experiment, were the honeybees. Von Frisch still manipulates the independent variable, but there is limited control of extraneous variables.

Method: Food sources for a hive of bees were created by placing glass containers of sugar-water at different locations.
A hive with glass sides was used so that the behaviour of the bees could be easily monitored. When the bees visited the sugar-water containers to feed, they were marked with tiny spots of different coloured paints to easily identify them when they returned back to the glass hive.
The researchers then observed and recorded their behaviour and movements upon returning to the hive after visiting the food source.

Karl Von Frisch’s Bee Study 1950

Results: The bees were observed to be making different movements that appeared to depend on how far away the food source was from the hive. For example, when the food source was no further than a 100 metres from the hive, the bees did a round dance (picture A) by turning rapidly in circles to the right and then left.

When the food source was moved further away, the bees performed a tail-wagging dance (picture B), moving forward in a straight line while wagging their abdomens from side to side, before turning in a circle towards the left. This was then followed by the bees moving straight forward again before turning in a circle towards the right. This pattern of behaviour was repeated a number of times.

Karl Von Frisch found that the number of turns a bee did within fifteen seconds of “waggle dancing” actually communicated how far away the food source was. He also found that bees used the straight part of the dance to communicate where the food source was in relation to the current position of the sun.

Conclusion: Von Frisch concluded that bees use a variety of different movements to communicate to each other the distance and direction of food sources.

Evaluating Karl Von Frisch’s Bee Study 1950

  • Von Frisch’s research is important as it was one of the primary studies into animal communication and influenced other researchers to conduct research into animal communication.
  • The results from his bee study have been found to be reliable as when others have recreated it, they have found similar results. This consistency (reliability) in findings allows us to be more certain that the results are trustworthy and valid.
  • The artificial setup of sugar-water and bees having to gather this from glass containers is not natural or indicative of the everyday behaviour of bees. Due to this setup, the study could be argued to lack ecological validity.
  • Researchers did find putting a sugar solution on flowers also resulted in the bees acting the same way which indicates the setup is valid and can be generalised to real-world settings for bee behaviour.
  • Another limitation is the use of glass hives. Bees do not normally live in such hives and this may have affected their behaviour however subsequent research that has replicated the study using wooden hives has had similar results. Another argument for their behaviour by researchers is that in order to find food, bees may also use cognitive maps based on their memory of landmarks.

Properties of human communication not present in animal communication

Human communication and animal communication may share some similar properties, but only human communication contains all properties. These are known as the design features of language.

Two properties unique to human language and communication is productivity and displacement.

productivity and displacement - AQA psychology language thought and communication
  • Productivity is the ability to create an unlimited number of different messages. It allows language to be used creatively and is not found in animal communication. Von Frisch’s bee study could vary the messages they conveyed by their dancing but there are limits to what they can say. For example, they do not appear to have movements or signals that mean up or down.
  • Displacement is the ability to communicate about things that are not present or events that have yet to happen in the future. This allows language to be used to plan ahead and discuss future events. Planning behaviour displayed by animals, for example squirrels storing nuts for winter, are likely to be due to innate or instinctive forces rather than communicated ideas.

Evaluating Design Features of Language

  • It is difficult to say for certain which properties of language are design features used exclusively by humans as we do not fully understand animal communication. More is being learnt about animal communication all the time.
  • Although some animals, such as Koko the gorilla, can use the same properties of communication as humans, this behaviour is not naturally occurring behaviour and such animals may therefore be simply imitating humans.
  • There are also ethical concerns around testing such research on animals. Keeping wild animals in captivity and training them to behave in ways that are not natural to them is considered ethically cruel.

What is Non-Verbal Communication?

For Non-Verbal Communication, the GCSE Psychology subject requires you to know about the following:

  • Definitions of non-verbal communication and verbal communication.
  • Functions of eye contact including regulating flow of conversation, signalling attraction and expressing emotion.
  • Body language including open and closed posture, postural echo and touch.
  • Personal space including cultural, status and gender differences.

Non-verbal communication can be simply defined as a way of conveying messages without the use of words.

For this topic, we will focus exclusively on ways in which we communicate without the use of technology i.e. text messages, email etc. This can however include aspects of speech such as the tone, pitch or volume of someone’s voice. It can also include visual cues such as eye contact and body language.

Communication that uses words is called verbal communication. This can involve talking to someone or reading a letter.

The Functions of Eye Contact

Although we may not be aware of how they play a role, eye contact and movements have a very important function in communication.

Research has found that when someone is about to finish speaking, they give the other person a prolonged look. In experiments where speakers have worn dark glasses, research has found that when we cannot see someone’s eyes, we are unsure when they are going to finish speaking and when to start talking themselves. Wearing dark glasses in one experiment saw more pauses and interruptions which suggests one function of eye contact is to regulate the smooth flow of conversation.

Pupil dilation has also been found to express emotion. Dilation is when the pupils expand and look larger. In one research study, when young men were shown two pictures of the same girl and asked to comment on which was more attractive, the majority chose the girl whose picture had been altered to look more dilated. The pupils of the participants were also found to dilate when they looked at the altered photo.

Other research has also found that people have a preference to those that look at them more frequently. This may be a signal for attraction as we interpret a high level of looking as a signal of attraction.


With animals, posture is used to communicate dominance, threat and submission. Humans also use posture to communicate non-verbally.

For example, crossing arms during a conversation is known as a closed posture. Psychologists believe this could indicate rejection, disagreement or feeling threatened. When people have their arms uncrossed in a relaxed position, this is known as an open posture. This is believed to indicate acceptance.

Some research studies have found that the posture someone adopts influences how much they are liked. Having an open posture is seen to increase people’s perception of the individual as friendly and attractive. Closed postures mean you are more likely to be seen as unfriendly and less attractive.

People that tend to get on well together are seen to adopt one another’s posture when having a conversation. This is known as a postural echo. Research studies have found that a postural echo gives an unconscious message of friendliness and people are more liked when they use it.


Touch is another form of non-verbal communication and a powerful signal that can produce unconscious emotional reactions.

There is a huge difference between different cultures on the amount of touch that is permitted between individuals with western societies being less restrictive than some eastern societies.

Research by psychologists has found that touch can lead to people being favoured more positively. One study measured the attitudes of students who return their library books. The librarian briefly touched them on the hand as they returned their books and subsequently reported to have a much more positive attitude towards both the library and librarian when compared to those who had not been touched.

Other research has found touch can be persuasive too. When you briefly touch other people, research has found they are more likely to agree to your request. One study measured the persuasive effects of touch where a man asked women to dance with him. When he touched a womans arm for a second, two-thirds agreed to dance with him. When the same man did not use touch, his success rate dropped by half.

Differences in Personal Space

differences in personal space

Studies suggest there are a number of gender differences in personal space.

Men tend to have a bigger personal space boundary than women, and both genders prefer to have a greater amount of space between themselves and members of the opposite sex.

There are also gender differences in how we position ourselves when we are close to other people. Women prefer to sit next to their friends by their side while men prefer to sit opposite them.

Women tend to have their personal space boundary invaded more often by men than the other way around. Men feel more uncomfortable when their personal space is invaded from in front of them while women tend to feel more uncomfortable when their personal space is invaded from the side.

Other factors that affect personal space is age and personality. Research suggests people tend to sit or stand next to people if they are a smaller age. People with the personality types known as introverts tend to have a larger personal space boundary than those deemed extroverts.

Status is another factor that affects personal space. Studies have found that people tend to stand closer to others they deem to be of the same status as themselves compared to people of a higher status. People of a higher status feel more free to choose how close they are to someone.

Cultural norms are another factor that affects personal space. When comparing the personal space of groups of white English people and Arab people during conversations, results showed the comfortable conversation distance for white English people was between 1 and 1.5 metres. For Arab people, this was much less than that suggesting culture is a mitigating factor for personal space.

Explanations of Non-Verbal Behaviour

For Explanations of Non-Verbal Behaviour, you need to know the following For GCSE Psychology:

  • Darwin’s evolutionary theory of non-verbal communication as evolved and adaptive.
  • Evidence that non-verbal behaviour is innate, eg in neonates and the sensory deprived.
  • Evidence that non-verbal behaviour is learned. Yuki’s study of emoticons.

Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory of Non-Verbal Communication

  • Darwin suggested several principles for the evolution of non-verbal communication that expresses emotions. One of these principles is serviceable associated habits. A serviceable behaviour is one that has a purpose, for example, humans may have used biting as an early form of self-defence. In a similar way to animals, early humans may also have exposed their teeth as a threat signal. A serviceable associated habit happens when we have a similar experience, but the behaviour now does not serve the same purpose. The behaviour is now therefore a habit that is associated with feeling a certain way or certain situations. This could therefore explain why people expose their teeth when they have an angry facial expression.
  • Another principle Darwin suggested was the principle of actions due to the constitution of the nervous system. This means that some forms of non-verbal communication are actually caused by our nervous system. For example, dilated pupils and an open mouth are part of a frightening facial response, but they are also the same effects of adrenaline being released into our bodies by our nervous system during the fight or flight response.
  • Pupil dilation increases visual information and allows us to potentially see the best way to avoid danger. An open mouth increases oxygen supply which allows us to move away from a threat much faster. Pupil dilation can also happen when we are attracted to someone and also makes us more attractive. A high level of looking is also interpreted as a signal of attraction. These cues are examples of non-verbal communication which help with reproduction.

Evaluation of Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory of Non-verbal Communication

  • Research evidence supports Darwin’s theory. Medical evidence supports the idea that the function of our nervous system causes certain actions, such as pupil dilation. Other research into neonates also suggests that some non-verbal behaviours are innate and biologically determined (genetics).
  • A criticism is that non-verbal behaviours can also easily be explained by learning through observation rather than genetics. Social learning theory believes behaviours are learned through the observation and replication of other people. 
  • It is possible that behaviours may be both innate and learned. When we are born we have the ability to cry and laugh but we can also learn to control them and use them in a way that fits in with social and cultural norms. Some behaviours however may serve no purpose in reproduction or survival such as the use of gestures.

Evidence that Non-verbal Behaviour is Innate

Darwin’s theory proposed that emotional expressions were innate or due to genetics. Facial expressions should therefore be the same across all cultures and research evidence suggests expressions for anger, disgust, happiness, sadness, fear and surprise are universally recognised by most cultures throughout the world.

One experiment filmed people from Papua New Guinea telling a story using non-verbal communication. The film was shown to college students from America who were able to accurately identify the emotions they conveyed. This lends support to Darwin’s theory that non-verbal communication may be biologically determined.
If this is the case, emotional expressions should also be found in neonates. The younger a baby is, the less likely that any expressions they display are learned through observations. Research into neonate facial expressions has shown that they use a pre-cry expression to convey sadness, as well as smiling, disgust, pain and surprise. This further supports the argument that some facial expressions may be innate behaviour.

Research has also focused on babies who are sensory deprived (e.g. born blind). If facial expressions are learnt then they should not convey the same behaviour as those not blind as these would not have been observed. Research has shown that babies born blind have smiling behaviours that are similar to those with normal sight. Other research used 4800 photographs of sighted and blind athletes to compare the facial expressions they made at significant moments. Researchers found that both the sighted and blind athletes expressed their emotions in similar ways.

Evidence that non-verbal behaviour is learned

There is also a body of evidence to suggest non-verbal behaviour is a learned response.

Yuki’s study of emoticons suggests the way we interpret facial expressions is in part due to culture and nurture (learning).

For example, non-verbal communication and speech are closely linked. This is seen in the way eye contact is used to help the flow of a conversation. This form of non-verbal communication is learned at the same time we learn to use language with both learned through social interactions. This is supported by the historical and generational changes in how non-verbal communication has been used.

Masaki Yuki’s Emoticons Study 2007

Aim: To investigate if culture affects how facial cues are used when understanding other peoples emotions.

Study design: A questionnaire with standard questions for all participants and a rating scale from 1 to 9. Participants consisted of American and Japanese students.

Method: Yuki showed participants emoticons with six different combinations of eyes and mouths. The eyes and mouths were happy, neutral and sad. Participants were then asked to rate how happy they thought each face was.

Results: The Japanese students were found to give the highest ratings for the faces with happy eyes and the lowest ratings for the face with sad eyes. American students tended to give the highest ratings to the faces with happy mouths and the lowest ratings to the faces with sad mouths.

The results showed that Japanese and American people may give more weight to different parts o the face when interpreting another person’s emotions. The Japanese students focused more on the eyes while the American students focused more on the mouths. This would suggest a difference in their understanding of facial expressions.

Conclusion: Yuki concluded that this happened because people learn their own cultural norms on expression and interpretation of emotions. Yuki suggested the results may be related to how openly a culture expresses emotion. For example, the eye muscles are not as easy to control as those around the mouth and therefore the eyes may be seen as the most truthful facial cue in cultures that limit their emotional expressions (such as Japan).

In western cultures such as the USA where open emotional expression is normal, the mouth may be seen as the best guide to interpret emotions.

Evaluating Masaki Yuki’s Emoticons Study 2007

  • Yuki’s study is important as it provides support for the theory that non-verbal behaviour is learned to some extent.
  • A criticism of Yuki’s study is emoticons were used instead of real faces. Trying to interpret an emoticon is not natural or part of everyday behaviour. Therefore the study lacks ecological validity.
  • A strength of the study is when Yuki used photos of people instead, the results were still the same.
  • Another criticism is the participants were aware they were part of a research study. This may have affected the responses they gave and they may have displayed demand characteristics. The researchers may have also given subtle clues as to the answers to participants and this may also invalidate the results.
  • The participant sample was also very limited because they consisted of only students. This means the results can not be generalised to other age ranges of people that are younger or older.
  • The study only looked at the basic emotions of happiness and sadness. Therefore. the findings cannot be generalised to other facial expressions and other emotions.
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