The Situationist

Archive for September 1st, 2008

The Situation of Metaphor

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 1, 2008

Over on We’re Only Human, Wray Herbert has another one of his superb posts, this one about the situtational sources of temperature-based metaphors — and the association of cold and lonely. Here’s a sample.

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Psychologists are curious about this metaphor, and others. Some believe that metaphors are much more than literary conventions, indeed that they are constellations of ancient and recent experience that we use to help us comprehend the complexity of our emotional lives. According to this view, metaphors are readily available because they are deep-wired into our neurons.

But how did they get there? Two psychologists at the University of Toronto decided to explore this question in the laboratory. Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoffrey Leonardelli wanted to see if our use of metaphor in thinking and judgment might be influenced by our most basic perceptions of the world—the information that enters the brain through the senses. Our ancient ancestors probably linked warmth and togetherness by necessity, as do infants still; bodily warmth often means comfort and survival. Might cold and isolation be similarly linked in the mind?

Here’s how the psychologists tested the idea. They divided a group of volunteers in two, and had half of them recall a personal experience in which they had been socially excluded—rejection from a club, for example. This was meant to “prime” their unconscious feelings of isolation and loneliness. The others recalled a happier experience, one in which they had been accepted into a group.

Then they had all the volunteers estimate the temperature in the room, on the pretense that the building’s maintenance staff wanted that information. . . . Those who had been primed to feel isolated and rejected gave consistently lower estimates of the temperature, by almost five degrees. In other words, the recalled memories of being ostracized actually made people experience the world as colder.

. . . . In another experiment, instead of relying on volunteers’ memories, the researchers actually triggered feelings of exclusion. They had the volunteers play a computer-simulated ball tossing game, but the game was actually rigged. Some of the volunteers tossed the ball around in a normal friendly way, but others were left out, just as an unpopular kid might be left out by other kids at the playground.

Afterwards, all the volunteers rated the desirability of certain drinks and foods: hot coffee, crackers, an ice-cold Coke, an apple, and hot soup. The findings were striking. As reported in the September issue of the journal Psychological Science, the “unpopular” volunteers who had been ostracized on the virtual “playground” were much more likely than the others to want either hot soup or coffee. Their preference for warmth, for “comfort food,” presumably resulted from actually feeling the cold in the cold shoulder.

It appears that physical sensations and abstract psychological experience are tightly intertwined, and that intertwining may explain the power and appeal of metaphor. But it may also illuminate the relationship between our very real moods and our perceptions of the world around us. Experiencing cold may actually act as a catalyst in mood disorders, the psychologists suggest, exacerbating feelings of isolation and lonelines.

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To read all of Herbert’s superb post, click here. To download a pdf of Zhong and Leonardelli’s article, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Implicit Associations | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

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