The Situationist

The Embodied Situation of Metaphors

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 22, 2010

In the current issue of  Observer, the magazine of the Association of Psychological Science, Barbara Isanski and Catherine wrote a great article, “The Body of Knowledge” summarizing the growing field of embodied cognition.  Here are some excerpts.

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The cold shoulder. A heavy topic. A heroic white knight. We regularly use concrete, sensory-rich metaphors like these to express abstract ideas and complicated emotions. But a growing body of research is suggesting that these metaphors are more than just colorful literary devices — there may be an underlying neural basis that literally embodies these metaphors. Psychological scientists are giving us more insight into embodied cognition — the notion that the brain circuits responsible for abstract thinking are closely tied to those circuits that analyze and process sensory experiences— and its role in how we think and feel about our world.

APS Fellow and Charter Member Art Glenberg (Arizona State University) says embodiment “provides a counterweight to the prevailing view that cognition is something in the head that is pretty much separate from behavior. We are animals, and so all of our biology and cognition is ultimately directed towards literal action/behavior for survival and reproduction.” And, he adds, “Explicitly recognizing this will help us to develop better theories.”

Cold Hands, Warm Heart

When someone is described as “chilly,” we understand it means “unfriendly” and not that they should put on a sweater. But using low temperature to capture social remoteness is more than just a convention of language. According to a number of studies, there may be a psychological reason for connecting temperature and social relationships.

In a 2008 study, when volunteers were asked to think about a time they felt socially rejected, they described the temperature in the room as being significantly colder than did volunteers who recalled an experience in which they felt socially included, even though the room temperature was actually the same for both groups. In a separate experiment, volunteers played an online version of a ball-tossing game with three other opponents (unbeknownst to the volunteers, they were the sole participants — a computer program controlled the throws). The game was rigged in a way that some of the volunteers never had the ball tossed to them while other volunteers were able to actively participate in the game. After the game, the volunteers were asked to rate the desirability of various foods and beverages. The volunteers who never had a turn in the ball-tossing game (that is, they were excluded) tended to desire soups and hot coffee more than did the volunteers who played a lot in the game. University of Toronto psychological scientists Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoffrey Leonardelli, who conducted these experiments, suggest that the excluded volunteers craved warmer food and drinks because they felt cold (Zhong & Leonardelli, 2008).

The link between social isolation and physical sensations of cold may work in the other direction, too. A study by APS Fellow Gün R. Semin and his Utrecht University colleague Hans IJzerman suggests that temperature can affect how we feel towards others. Volunteers were handed a hot or cold beverage at the start of the experiment and then were asked to think about their relationships with friends and family. The volunteers who had held a warm beverage tended to rate themselves as being closer to the important people in their lives, compared to volunteers who had been given a cold beverage (IJzerman & Semin, 2009).

Cleanliness = Godliness

Just as feeling distant from other people makes us feel cold, feeling immoral makes us feel physically unclean. Shakespeare dramatized this link vividly: Feeling guilty about the murders she had precipitated, Lady Macbeth scrubs her hands as though she literally had blood on them: “Out damn spot, out I say!” Zhong and Katie Liljenquist (Northwestern University) coined the term “the Macbeth effect” to describe people’s increased urge to wash themselves when their morals become threatened — in other words, an attempt to cleanse ourselves of our sins (Zhong & Liljenquist, 2006).

A recent study by University of Plymouth psychological scientists Simone Schnall, Jennifer Benton, and Sophie Harvey showed that just thinking about concepts related to cleanliness (words like “washed” and “pure,” for example) can influence moral decisions. When volunteers thought about clean concepts, they considered hypothetical moral transgressions to be more acceptable than did those volunteers who thought about neutral concepts. In a follow-up experiment, volunteers who washed their hands rated a moral dilemma as being less severe than did volunteers who didn’t wash their hands (Schnall, Benton, & Harvey, 2008).

Zhong says that the most surprising finding from the temperature and cleanliness studies “is the reciprocal relationship between physical and psychological experiences that are typically considered independent.” He adds, “Not only that our concrete experience of the physical world (e.g., cleanliness and coldness) can directly impact our conception of higher order, abstract constructs such as morality and social relations, but also that these abstract constructs can alter the way we experience the concrete and physical.”

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You can read the entire article here.  It includes sections summarizing studies suggesting that “colors can be linked to morality,” that “we ‘weigh’ important objects or consider difficult topics to be ‘heavy,'” that “[f]orward movement, weighed down or not, is typically associated with progress or achievement,” that “[w]hen we interact with others, our neural circuitry is engaged in a series of unconscious tasks, including mirroring the other person’s motor movements.”

To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Our Metaphorical Situation,” The Situation of Metaphors,” “Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will DebatePart I & Part II” “The Situation of Body Temperature,” Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Processes,” “Unclean Hands,” “The Body Has a Mind of its Own,” Ideology Shaping Situation, or Vice Versa?,” “The Situation of Snacking,” “The Situation of Imitation and Mimickry,” and The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV.”

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