Do you make decisions with your head or with your heart? Effects of metaphors on moral reasoning

In the novel and movie Sophie’s Choice, a Polish woman, Sophie Zawistowska, is arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Auschwitz death camp. On arrival, she is “honored” for not being a Jew by being allowed a choice: One of her children will be spared the gas chamber if she chooses which one should be killed. If she does not choose, both of them will be killed.

If you were Sophie, what would you do?

Hopefully you’ve never faced a dilemma quite like this one, but undoubtedly you have faced moral dilemmas in the past. Do you follow your head and choose one child so that at least one lives, or do you follow your heart, and forgo making the difficult choice?

Of course we can’t actually follow our head or our heart; these are metaphors for making decisions that are based in either rationality or emotion. Recent work I’ve done with Dr. Paul Thibodeau shows that these metaphors are more than figures of speech — they actually affect the way people make decisions about moral dilemmas. In our experiment, when we advised people to “think with your head, not your heart,” they made more rational decisions than when we advised them the opposite: “think with your heart, not your head.”

We started to wonder about the role that metaphors play in how we make tough decisions because we were intrigued by earlier research. Drs. Adam Fetterman & Michael Robinson had people indicate whether they normally follow their head or their heart to make tough decisions. They found that those who responded that they tend to follow their head behaved more rationally on a variety of measures — they performed better on general knowledge questions, had higher GPAs, reported being more logical and interpersonally cold, and made more rational decisions for dilemmas like Sophie’s choice (at the beginning of this post) — than those who indicated that they follow their heart. Those researchers concluded that head and heart metaphors are useful for understanding individual differences in how people think and approach the world.

Paul and I wondered if the simple act of asking people whether they saw themselves as a head- or heart-follower might prime them: it might get the metaphors in their mind (especially the one they chose as describing themselves) and guide the way they make decisions during the rest of the experiment, either consciously or unconsciously.

To test whether exposure to metaphors can shape the decisions people make, we first had to replicate the work by Fetterman and Robinson to make sure that we could get the same finding — and we did find that people who indicated that they follow their head answered more rationally on dilemmas like (and including) Sophie’s choice than those who indicated they follow their heart.

Then we were able to extend this finding. We presented all our participants with head or heart metaphors. Everyone read a passage that included only one of two alternative wordings (the two wordings are shown in brackets).

In the low salience condition, we included a head or heart metaphor only in the instructions, which told people to read the moral dilemmas and choose how they would behave in each situation. We told them that There are no right or wrong answers to the questions. Just [follow your heart/use your head] to make the judgment that you think is right.

In the medium and high salience conditions, people read passages that advised them to either think with their head or their heart.

Plato said that there are three parts of the soul. The first is our appetites or desires; the second is hot-blooded emotion; and the final is rational, conscious awareness. But these three parts of ourselves do not play equal roles in making us who we are. The [head/heart] is the most crucial for defining who we are. The [head/heart] is where we find our true self.

The main difference between the medium and high salience conditions was that the medium salience passage continued:

If we are to live a long and prosperous life, we must always listen to our [head/heart]. George Washington, Abe Lincoln, and Michelle Obama are just a few of the incredibly successful people who have followed Plato’s advice in never losing sight of the fact that their [head/heart] holds the key to who they truly are.

The end of the high salience passage was similar to the medium, but it didn’t just encourage people to use their head or heart — it explicitly contrasted the two metaphors (for example, we must always listen to our [head/heart], even if it conflicts with our [heart/head]). This encouraged people to mentally contrast the two possibilities, and made the differences between their implications more salient.

We found that metaphors shaped the way people reasoned only in the high salience condition, when we contrasted the two metaphors with each other. In the low and medium salience conditions, when the metaphor was included either only in the instructions, or also in the passage but without contrast to the competing metaphor, people didn’t respond any differently to the emotional dilemmas based on the metaphor they read.

fig1 recolored
In this graph, the y-axis shows the proportion of responses that indicated the more rational response. The left bar shows our replication of Fetterman & Robinson, 2013: when people chose whether they followed their head or heart, they tended to respond to the moral dilemmas in consistent ways (more rationally for “head” responders than “heart” responders). The 3 right bars indicate our new experiment that used metaphors to encourage people to reason with their head or heart. Only in the high salience condition, when people contrasted the head and heart metaphors, did we find consistent differences in how people made decisions for the moral dilemmas.

This work suggests to us that metaphors are most likely to shape the way we think about complex issues when we explicitly contrast two possibilities. We’re still not sure why this may be, but we have a few hypotheses to investigate down the road.


For more info, you can check out the poster we presented last week at CogSci 2017, the international meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, which took place in London.

Bonus! Henri Skinner, a stellar undergraduate at UCSD, made this spoken word poem inspired by this work.

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