Are your ideas seeds or lightbulbs?

When someone has a great idea or invention, we commonly talk about that idea metaphorically: a light bulb suddenly turned on and the idea struck him, or she nurtured the idea from a seed that grew to bear fruit. The idea’s merit or the merit of the person who came up with it shouldn’t depend on how we metaphorically talk about its emergence, but new research by Kristen Elmore and Myra Luna-Lucero suggests that the metaphor matters.

Participants in the first experiment read about Alan Turing’s invention of a precursor to the modern computer. For some of them, the passage described that Turing had a bright idea that struck him like a light bulb that had suddenly turned on. For others, the passage said that Turing had the seed of an idea that took root like a growing seed that had finally borne fruit. A third group read about Turing’s invention without either metaphor. All participants then answered questions probing how exceptional they believed Turing’s idea to be. People who read about Turing’s light bulb idea believed his invention to be more exceptional than those who read about his seed idea. People who hadn’t read either metaphor rated the idea’s exceptionality in between the seed- and light bulb-readers (though technically their ratings weren’t significantly higher than ratings following seed metaphors or lower than those following lightbulb metaphors). These results suggest that we seem to believe ideas are more exceptional if they’re described with lightbulb metaphors than seed metaphors.

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In the next experiment, the researchers wanted to know if the metaphors could affect more than our perceptions of ideas and extend to our perceptions of the person who had the idea. Participants again read either about ideas as lightbulbs, as seeds, or without a metaphor, and then had to consider the average man and woman. The researchers asked: Do you think men or women are better at coming up with creative ideas? People who had been exposed to the seed metaphor were more likely to indicate that women were more creative than people who read the lightbulb metaphor, suggesting that when people are thinking of good ideas as things that are cultivated and grown from hard work, women seem more capable of having them.

They further probed this question of whether metaphor affects our perception of innovators in a final experiment. In addition to reading a passage that couched an invention (spread-spectrum technology in radio communication) with either the seed, lightbulb, or no metaphor, people read about either a female (Hedy Lamarr) or a male (George Antheil) inventor. Finally, people judged the exceptionality of the inventor. Here are their results:

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The data show us that when the male was the inventor people were considering, people who thought about his idea as a seed actually felt he was less exceptional than those who thought about his idea as a lightbulb or who weren’t encouraged to think about his invention metaphorically. Considerations of the female inventor took the opposite form: those who had been thinking about her innovation as a seed found her to be more exceptional than those who thought of the innovation as a lightbulb. This experiment suggests that we hold beliefs that men who are geniuses experience sudden insights, while women must work long and hard to achieve the same exceptionality.

Work in educational psychology suggests that it is more beneficial to encourage kids to have growth mindsets than fixed mindsets. In other words, they should be taught that their abilities are not immutable. They can get better at things by hard work and practice. They’re taught to have a seed mindset instead of a lightbulb view – ideas don’t just come, we earn them. It might be tough to teach kids to believe in growth mindsets if we also hold the beliefs these studies show, if we believe that women are more likely to achieve success by nurturing their seed ideas and men are more likely to do so with the flash of a bulb.

But boys are not doomed to fixed mindsets! Perhaps we could stop posting pictures of light bulbs all over elementary school classrooms as a source of inspiration and replace them with images of plants. And when kids are encouraged to buy into growth mindsets, we can share these powerful metaphors with them and remind them that men and women can both grow great things from seeds. It’s a start at least.

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