Creating Understanding

How Communicating Aligns Minds

by Jessica Gasiorek (Author) R. Kelly Aune (Author)
©2021 Textbook XII, 172 Pages
Series: Language as Social Action, Volume 23


Winner of the Jake Harwood Outstanding Book Award (2022).

What, exactly, is understanding? And how do people create, maintain, and manipulate states of understanding via communication? This book addresses these questions, drawing on interdisciplinary scholarship in cognitive science, communication, psychology, and pragmatics. Rejecting classic descriptions of communication as "sending and receiving messages," this book proposes a novel perspective that depicts communication as a process in which interactants construct, test, and refine mental modes of a joint experience on the basis of the meme states (mental representations) activated by stimuli in social interactions. It explains how this process, when successful, results in interactants' mental models aligning, or becoming entrained—in other words, in creating a state of understanding. This framework is grounded in a set of foundational observations about evolved human cognition that highlight people's intrinsic social orientation, predisposition toward efficiency, and use of predictive interference-making. These principles are also used to explain how codified systems ("codes") emerge in extended or repeated interactions in which people endeavor to create understanding. Integrating and synthesizing research across disciplines, this book offers communication scholars and students a theoretical framework that will transform the way they see understanding, communication, and social connection.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Communication and Understanding
  • Chapter Two: Conceptualizing Understanding
  • Chapter Three: Premises: Human Cognition and Behavior
  • Chapter Four: Components of Communicating
  • Chapter Five: Creating Understanding
  • Chapter Six: Contextual Factors
  • Chapter Seven: Codification
  • Chapter Eight: Connections and Implications
  • Chapter Nine: Contributions and Future Directions
  • Index

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There are many important people that have contributed to this book, directly and indirectly. We thank the Series Editor, Howie Giles, for his helpful comments and suggestions for improving and refining this text, as well as Marko Dragojevic for his questions and comments on earlier versions of core chapters. We also thank Richard Huskey for his invaluable feedback and time discussing content related to cognitive science and communication neuroscience, and for directing us to resources on these topics. Earlier versions of some of the material in this book were also presented as conference papers (Aune & Gasiorek, 2019; Gasiorek & Aune, 2019), and we appreciate the feedback from peer reviewers we received on those iterations of our work.

We are grateful to our colleagues in the Department of Communicology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa for supporting the creation of undergraduate and graduate classes on creating understanding. They embraced the arguments that creating understanding should be central to the educational experiences we provide our majors and graduate students. We also thank the hundreds of students in our classes over the past decade that worked with us as we developed the material for this book. Material in this book incorporates and further expands text from an Open Educational Resource we developed for one of these courses (Gasiorek & Aune, 2017), the creation of which was supported by a grant from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Outreach College.

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JG would like to express her appreciation to Howie Giles, Linda Putnam, Scott Reid, and Rene Weber for teaching her how to see the world through the lens of scientific theory, and how to ask and answer questions rigorously and systematically. She also thanks Karen Nylund-Gibson for introducing her to Bayesian statistics.

Finally, we thank our families and friends for their support and encouragement. RKA thanks his sons Brian, Alex, Nathaniel, and Kenny for their patience with his tendency to answer questions with lectures. They never complained—eye rolls perhaps, but no complaints. RKA would also like to acknowledge his spouse and colleague, Krystyna, and remind her—once again—that “all good things come from you.”

JG thanks her spouse Jack for his giving her time on weekends and early mornings to write and edit, particularly during a challenging stretch of pandemic stay-at-home orders without childcare (a few months before this manuscript was due). She is also grateful to her mother Joan, for her patience with a lifetime of questions and for fostering a love of learning. Finally, JG would like to thank her daughter Kira—who was born partway through the process of writing this book—for giving her a new appreciation for how humans communicate, entrain, and share the world with one another.


Aune, R. K., & Gasiorek, J. (2019, November). Five thousand years of studying communication: In search of square one. Paper presented at the National Communication Association Annual Convention, Baltimore, MD.

Gasiorek, J., & Aune, R. K. (2017). Message processing: The science of creating understanding. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Outreach College. Retrieved from: http://pressbooks.oer.hawaii.edu/messageprocessing/

Gasiorek, J., & Aune, R. K. (2019, May). Toward an integrative model of communication as creating understanding. Paper presented at the International Communication Association Annual Conference, Washington D.C.

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In this brief introduction, we describe the origins of this book and its primary goals: to offer an explicit conceptualization of understanding, and to offer insight into the process of creating understanding in human communication. We outline why this is an important topic for communication researchers, and offer a brief sketch of contemporary interdisciplinary scholarship on understanding. We conclude with an outline of this book.

We (the authors) are both communication scholars by training; not surprisingly, we have pursued this path because we are interested how communication works. As a field, communication has great breadth, spanning from the fine arts to neuroscience. We are quantitative social scientists; as such, we represent, and work in a narrow slice of the field’s wide span, which we will refer to as the discipline of communication1. Looking across the considerable body of theoretical and empirical work in communication, we were both struck, and surprised, by the lack of research in our discipline on understanding, and how people come to understand each other.

We came to this question from different backgrounds. One of us (JG) pursued an undergraduate degree in foreign languages (French and Italian), and spent time living and working in France and Belgium before pursuing graduate work in communication. In this, she spent countless hours trying to master new communicative systems, and struggling to express herself—and have others ←1 | 2→recognize what she intended to express—using those systems. Living abroad, where multilingualism (with varying degrees of proficiency) was the norm, she regularly watched people negotiate what language they would agree to use for an interaction. She also watched people employ a range of creative strategies when their language proficiency presented an obstacle to expressing their ideas. (She also used her own share of these strategies herself). All of these experiences put the process of creating understanding front and center in her everyday life, and rendered it something that could not be taken for granted. When she pursued graduate studies in communication—where she ultimately focused on studying communication accommodation—she was surprised (and honestly, a bit confused) to find that the discipline had relatively little insight into how people create understanding, and related issues.

The other (RKA) found his way to the question of creating understanding without the challenges and benefits of traveling abroad. In graduate school, as a student of human communication, RKA was drawn to studying how people learned implicitly, and how they processed information in non-analytical ways. He was particularly interested in how people communicated successfully using incomplete utterances. In graduate coursework outside his home department, RKA was introduced to scholarship in linguistics and philosophy, where he found scholars addressing these issues. As a faculty member, his research eventually narrowed to what he came to think of as creating understanding, including developing a theory addressing how people assess responsibility for creating understanding in communicative interaction (Aune et al., 2005). Over time, he developed a class that focused solely on how people create understanding in interaction. When JG arrived in the department, RKA happily discovered a colleague that was interested in questions of understanding, and the discussions that ultimately led to this book began in earnest.

Wanting to learn more about understanding, but finding little in our disciplinary home, we looked to our social scientific neighbors and beyond, and found serious inquiries, and insights, into this topic in research from cognitive sciences, psychology, linguistics and philosophy. However, and not surprisingly, scholars in each of these fields addressed these questions through their own disciplinary lens. They focused on different aspects of the process, and approached the question at different levels of abstraction.

Reading this work was illuminating, but no single source captured the process of creating understanding in a way that we, as communication scholars, were seeking. We also wanted to bring the insights that these other sources provided back to our colleagues in the discipline. As scholars and teachers of communication, we felt that our discipline’s lack of engagement with the topic of ←2 | 3→understanding was a significant—indeed, critical—omission. These sentiments, and the path they ultimately took us down, were the impetus for this book.

Why Understanding Matters

So, one might ask, does our discipline’s lack of engagement with understanding matter? An omission is not in and of itself problematic; sometimes a topic or concept receives minimal attention because it is not important or interesting (Davis, 1971). We believe that the question of how people create understanding matters very much, and is both important and interesting.

From a theoretical perspective, this topic is foundational: the creation of understanding underlies many of the other outcomes that communication scholars study. For example, when interpersonal communication researchers examine the role of disclosure in developing and maintaining relationships (e.g. Taylor & Altman, 1987), there is an implicit assumption that people understand the content of each other’s disclosures (if not, simply making sounds and/or being in the presence of another person should be sufficient to build a relationship). Similarly, persuasion researchers assume that people process and comprehend the content in persuasive messages that researchers craft and test, and that this processing and comprehension of message content underlies message effects. There are also many areas of communication research that address understanding implicitly or indirectly (see Chapter 1 for a more extended discussion of this point). This collective body of work would likely benefit from having a consistent theoretical foundation.

For empirical social scientists, the topic of creating understanding also has important methodological implications. At present, most empirical work in the discipline of communication (and indeed, we would argue, in our neighboring social scientific disciplines as well) takes for granted that research participants understand the instructions they are given, and that they understand the communicative stimuli researchers employ. When studies involve interaction, researchers assume that participants (and sometimes, confederates) understand each other. It is standard practice to include memory checks or manipulation checks to ensure that participants recall what they were exposed to, and that a stimulus had the effect that was intended. However, this approach does not necessarily confirm that participants understood the message they encountered as the researcher intended—it simply shows that the message was recalled, or it had the desired effect. (For a discussion of related issues with manipulation checks in persuasion research, see O’Keefe, 2003). As a discipline, communication has not clearly theorized how people come to understand each other, or how people comprehend the ←3 | 4→messages they encounter. Without a theoretical compass that orients researchers to this topic, it becomes easier to overlook in the practices that guide study design and execution.

Finally, from a practical perspective, knowing how people (effectively) create understanding is useful and valuable. There are a range of contexts where ensuring comprehension of specific content is important. Communicating information about risks, explaining health-related diagnoses and treatment (e.g. how often to take medication, at what dosage; Burgers et al., 2015), or providing warnings relating to personal safety are just a few of many possible examples (e.g. Gasiorek & Aune, 2017). Closely related, teaching and learning—activities that are central to people’s growth, development, and daily lives—essentially consist of creating understanding via communication. Knowing how the process of creating understanding works should allow people to troubleshoot and fix problems more efficiently and effectively across these contexts (or at the very least, have the satisfaction of knowing why something is happening, even if they cannot change it).

Contemporary Scholarship on Creating Understanding


XII, 172
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XII, 172 pp.

Biographical notes

Jessica Gasiorek (Author) R. Kelly Aune (Author)

Jessica Gasiorek (Ph.D., University of California – Santa Barbara) is an associate professor in the Department of Communicology at the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa. Her research addresses communication accommodation, social cognition, intergroup dynamics, and communication about age and aging. R. Kelly Aune (Ph.D., University of Arizona) is a professor in the Department of Communicology at the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa. His research and teaching address message processing, inference-making and implicature, and creating understanding.


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