Sunday, March 27, 2011

Literal Metaphors

Metaphors are more than just literary devices discussed in English class - they can be found in almost every sentence we speak, and they help us understand abstract concepts like love, time, freedom, power, and morality (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). For example, an abstract concept like time may be represented by the more concrete, physical experience of moving forward through space (e.g., "I'm moving towards my goal") Although these metaphorical connections are not presumed to be literal – walking forward doesn’t literally mean getting closer to a personal goal – recent research suggests that many of these connections are more literal than we might think. It turns out that simple physical sensations or movements can shape our thinking and behavior in powerful ways, all without our awareness. Over the past few years the field has seen an explosion of research on this topic. In addition to revealing fascinating insights about how the mind works, many of these findings have practical implications. Here are some examples.

Carry around extra Purell, just in case. When reminded of a moral transgression, people were more motivated to clean themselves (they were more likely to choose antiseptic wipes over pencils, for example), and this self-cleansing reduced guilt (Zhong & Lijenquist, 2006). Next time you’re feeling impure, taking a shower may restore your sense of goodness – but it may not actually make you more moral: people who sanitized their hands also were less likely to volunteer to help another student, presumably because they already felt absolved of their sins. Literal cleansing can also soften moral judgments of others (Schnall, Benton, & Harvey, 2008), so it might be a good idea to pass around hand sanitizer before you make a big confession.

Pay attention to texture, and choose your chairs carefully. Physical textures such as hardness versus softness and smoothness versus roughness also influence social judgments and behavior (Ackerman, Nocera, & Bargh, 2010). Working with rough as opposed to smooth-textured puzzles made social interactions more difficult, and sitting on hard chairs made people more rigid negotiators. So sit on the couch if you want someone to be more flexible.

Eat salmon strategically. Fishy smells can actually make people more suspicious, as in “something smells fishy” (and this is not just because the fish smell can be unpleasant– fart smells don’t arouse suspicion; Lee & Schwarz). If you want to appear trustworthy at an important meeting, tuna salad may not be the best lunch option.

Choose hot coffee over iced. Warmth is such a pervasive metaphor (e.g., “He greeted her warmly”) that it’s easy to forget that it originates in the sensation of temperature. It turns out that merely holding a warm beverage or compress makes people express and perceive more psychological warmth – they are more likely to feel connected to others, to give a gift to a friend, and to interpret neutral people as being more caring and trustworthy (IJzerman & Semin, 2009; Williams & Bargh, 2008). In addition to opting for warm drinks when we might be entering a potentially contentious conversation, using a heated compress might help relieve feelings of loneliness.

Stay on top. People associate “up” (higher vertical position) with goodness, happiness, divinity, and power and “down” with the reverse (e.g., Giessner & Schubert, 2007; Meier & Robinson, 2004). Interestingly, males whose pictures appeared at the top of a page were rated as more attractive by women (Meier & Dionne, 2009), although the same was sadly not true for men rating women, so be mindful of where you place your picture. And if you’re feeling down, climbing a mountain might literally lift your spirits.

Invent or adopt new metaphors. If you’re dissatisfied with a given metaphor, find a new one. Maybe you’d prefer not to think of love as a battlefield. You could prime yourself to instead think of it as a thrilling adventure or a divine experience by seeking out these experiences when in the company of your loved one.

Juliana Breines is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. Her current research examines (1) how interpersonal processes shape the way people treat themselves, and (2) how constructive and destructive forms of self-treatment impact outcomes such as self-improvement motivation and health-relevant behaviors.

Landau, M. J., Meier, B. P., & Keefer, L. A. (2010). A metaphor-enriched social cognition Psychological Bulletin, 136 (6), 1045-1067 DOI: 10.1037/a0020970

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