The Situation of Metaphors
Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 30, 2009
Drake Bennett had a superb article, “The surprising ways that metaphors shape your world,” in Sunday’s Boston Globe. Here are some excerpts.
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[W]hether they’re being deployed by poets, politicians, football coaches, or realtors, metaphors are primarily thought of as tools for talking and writing–out of inspiration or out of laziness, we distill emotions and thoughts into the language of the tangible world. We use metaphors to make sense to one another.
Now, however, a new group of people has started to take an intense interest in metaphors: psychologists. Drawing on philosophy and linguistics, cognitive scientists have begun to see the basic metaphors that we use all the time not just as turns of phrase, but as keys to the structure of thought. By taking these everyday metaphors as literally as possible, psychologists are upending traditional ideas of how we learn, reason, and make sense of the world around us. The result has been a torrent of research testing the links between metaphors and their physical roots . . . . Researchers have sought to determine whether the temperature of an object in someone’s hands determines how ”warm” or ”cold” he considers a person he meets, whether the heft of a held object affects how ”weighty” people consider topics they are presented with, or whether people think of the powerful as physically more elevated than the less powerful.
What they have found is that, in fact, we do. Metaphors aren’t just how we talk and write, they’re how we think. At some level, we actually do seem to understand temperament as a form of temperature, and we expect people’s personalities to behave accordingly. What’s more, without our body’s instinctive sense for temperature–or position, texture, size, shape, or weight–abstract concepts like kindness and power, difficulty and purpose, and intimacy and importance would simply not make any sense to us. . . .
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”The abstract way we think is really grounded in the concrete, bodily world much more than we thought,” says [Situationist Contributor] John Bargh, a psychology professor at Yale and leading researcher in this realm.
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George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, and Mark Johnson, a philosophy professor at the University of Oregon, see human thought as metaphor-driven. But, in the two greatly influential books they have co-written on the topic, ”Metaphors We Live By” in 1980 and ”Philosophy in the Flesh” in 1999, Lakoff and Johnson focus on the deadest of dead metaphors, the ones that don’t even rise to the level of cliche. They call them ”primary metaphors,” and they group them into categories like ”affection is warmth,” ”important is big,” ”difficulties are burdens,” ”similarity is closeness,” ”purposes are destinations,” and even ”categories are containers.”
Rather than so much clutter standing in the way of true understanding, to Lakoff and Johnson these metaphors are markers of the roots of thought itself. Lakoff and Johnson’s larger argument is that abstract thought would be meaningless without bodily experience. And primary metaphors, in their ubiquity (in English and other languages) and their physicality, are some of their most powerful evidence for this.
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Inspired by this argument, psychologists have begun to make their way, experiment by experiment, through the catalog of primary metaphors, altering one side of the metaphorical equation to see how it changes the other.
Bargh at Yale, along with Lawrence Williams, now at the University of Colorado, did studies in which subjects were casually asked to hold a cup of either iced or hot coffee, not knowing it was part of the study, then a few minutes later asked to rate the personality of a person who was described to them. The hot coffee group, it turned out, consistently described a warmer person–rating them as happier, more generous, more sociable, good-natured, and more caring–than the iced coffee group. The effect seems to run the other way, too: In a paper published last year, Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoffrey J. Leonardelli of the University of Toronto found that people asked to recall a time when they were ostracized gave lower estimates of room temperature than those who recalled a social inclusion experience. [See video below, summarizing warm/cold study.]
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Similar results have proliferated in recent years. . . . Thomas Schubert, has also done work suggesting that the fact that we associate power and elevation (”your highness,” ”friends in high places”) means we actually unconsciously look upward when we think about power. Bargh and Josh Ackerman at MIT’s Sloan School of Business, in work that has yet to be published, have done studies in which subjects, after handling sandpaper-covered puzzle pieces, were less likely to describe a social situation as having gone smoothly. Casasanto has done work in which people who were told to move marbles from a lower tray up to a higher one while recounting a story told happier stories than people moving them down.
Several studies have explored the metaphorical connection between cleanliness and moral purity. . . .
To the extent that metaphors reveal how we think, they also suggest ways that physical manipulation might be used to shape our thought. In essence, that is what much metaphor research entails. And while psychologists have thus far been primarily interested in using such manipulations simply to tease out an observable effect, there’s no reason that they couldn’t be put to other uses as well, by marketers, architects, teachers, parents, and litigators, among others.
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We recommend reading Drake’s entire piece, here. To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate — Part 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.”