Metaphorical Mind Games

Do you think you'd judge people differently if you were holding something heavy rather than holding nothing at all? What if you were holding a cup of hot coffee as opposed to a cold drink? Emerging research says yes.

Studies show that the brain thinks in metaphors, and these metaphors are deeply ingrained into our culture and have a powerful influence on the way we judge others and our mental models of the world. Some linguistic experts maintain we use a metaphor every 25 words, but because they are so embedded in our language, they often go unnoticed.


The language of metaphors can dramatically impact our perceptions of others in ways that have significant consequences. It’s called embodied cognition (closely related to haptic sensation), and it’s thinking that involves constructing “simulations” of bodily experiences. People are more likely to judge an issue to be important when they are holding a heavy object. The sensorimotor experience of weight gives us the perception of importance, like the word "weighty" is used as an adjective to describe things that are important.


To put it another way, embodied cognition helps explain how your physical and emotional state interact and impact the way you think. If your heart is racing, your brain functions differently. If you experience something that is cold to the touch, you’ll associate an emotional interaction with coldness or lacking affection.


For example, in one study, participants were asked to hold either a hot or a cold drink before assessing the personality traits of an individual whom they knew nothing about beyond the “packet of information” given to them during the experiment. Questions were separated into two categories: those related to warm/cold distinctions such as caring or selfish and social or anti-social and those unrelated such as carefree or serious and strong or weak.


The researchers found that participants who held hot drinks rated the individual as “significantly ‘warmer” and “friendlier” than those that held cold drinks. Subjects were also given a gift card that they could either gift to a friend or keep for themselves. Those holding the warm drink were more likely to give the gift to a friend, whereas those holding the cold drink were more inclined to keep it for themselves.


Warm = affectionate, generous. Cold = unfeeling, uncaring.


In another study conducted at Stanford, participants were asked to read brief passages about crime in a fictional city. One group of participants received the passage where the crime was described as a virus infecting the city. In the other group, crime was described as a “beast preying” on the city. Other than those phrases, the passages remained exactly the same.


Simply changing a few words in the passage dramatically changed people’s attitudes about solutions for crime. Those who read the passage with the “beast” metaphor suggested much more punitive consequences like tougher prison sentences. Those who read the passage with the “virus” metaphor took a stronger position on treating the root cause of the crime by developing more effective reform measures. Remarkably, that single metaphor caused an even bigger difference in opinion than differences of opinion between Republicans and Democrats.


Beast = dangerous. Virus = sick.


What’s even more interesting is that metaphors influence our thinking unconsciously. Because they evoke physical sensations in our minds, they shape and often distort our perceptions in ways that we are not aware of. For example, one neuroscience study showed that reading the sentence “he had a rough day,” instead of the sentence “he had a bad day,” activated the region of the brain associated with texture rather than emotion. Different words create different physical and visceral responses even though we aren’t aware of the difference.


Cognitive scientists suggest that metaphors help us simplify abstract concepts by integrating cues from bodily sensations and the environment. This is why certain ideas become interlaced to a point where experiencing a physical sensation can activate ideas of an interpersonal experience like physical warmth can activate ideas of affection toward others.

When we talk about arguments we have with others, we use phrases like defend, attack, clash, and feud. We not only talk about arguments this way; we think about arguments in these terms, and this thinking shapes our actions. We either win or lose an argument. We see the other person as an opponent and attack his position while defending our own. While there may not be a physical battle, heated arguments become verbal battles. The "argument is war" metaphor significantly influences the way we behave in an argument.


This is some of the work done by George Lakoff, a professor at University of California at Berkeley. In 1978, he discovered that we think metaphorically and he spent the next year gathering as many metaphors as he could find to write one of the most groundbreaking books in cognitive science. The central message of his book, Conceptual Metaphor Theory (co-authored by Mark Johnson) is that metaphors don't just influence language, they influence the way we think. Lakoff maintains that metaphors are represented physically in the brain and as a result, that metaphorical brain circuitry affects the way we perceive others as well as our response to them.

Embodied cognition has a relatively short history. It dates back to early 20th century philosophers, but it has only been studied empirically in the last few decades. Since then, there have been a wide range of studies to test the construct of the influence of the body on the mind via metaphorical thought:


  • Thinking about the future caused participants to lean slightly forward while thinking about the past caused participants to lean slightly backwards. Future is Ahead 


  • Squeezing a soft ball influenced subjects to perceive gender neutral faces as female while squeezing a hard ball influenced subjects to perceive gender neutral faces as male. Female is Soft, Male is Hard


  • Those who held heavier clipboards judged currencies to be more valuable and their opinions and leaders to be more important. People are more confident that they would remember words physically attached to heavy boxes than words attached to light boxes. Although actual recognition memory performance was not influenced by the weight manipulation, weight created an illusion that items would be memorable. Important is Heavy.


  • Subjects asked to think about a moral transgression like adultery or cheating on a test were more likely to request an antiseptic cloth after the experiment than those who had thought about good deeds. Morality is Purity


While there is there is some controversy regarding replication and validity, a wealth of research has emerged in the last two decades that confirm Lakoff was onto something big… or heavy… or important.


Daniel Kahneman was quoted as saying, “Being amused tends to make you smile and smiling tends to make you feel amused." So putting a pen in your mouth horizontally can force you to form a smile expression and, as a consequence, you will feel happier. On the other hand, holding a pencil between their nose and upper lip to engage the muscles of a frown has the reverse effect. Check it out!
Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 3.45.46 PM

Book covers order now


Let's Chat!
Share Post