If social unrest is like fire, how should we extinguish it?

We’ve seen a lot of social unrest in the past year, a grave fact we were reminded of recently by a deadly white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, VA and subsequent spinoff clashes around the country. How should we talk about these events when people gather in defense of their key beliefs, particularly when such protests devolve into chaos and jeopardize safety?

A recent paper by Christopher Hart points out that we often use fire metaphors to describe civil unrest. I searched for some fire-related words on Twitter, and sure enough, without including anything related to civil disorder in my searches, came up with commentaries related to social unrest:

Do fire metaphors shape the way we think about these instances of social unrest? Do they contribute to a perceived legitimacy of police using a water cannon in response to the unrest?

These are the questions Hart’s experiments set out to address. Participants experienced one of the following conditions:

  • #1: Description of a protest using literal language (like “Protests have overwhelmed the city…”), accompanied by a picture from the protest (like a person damaging a car)
  • #2: Same description as #1, accompanied by a picture from the protest in which fire was present (like someone burning a car)
  • #3: Same description as above, but the description used metaphorical language, comparing protests to fire (instead of “Protests have overwhelmed the city…” it said “Protests have engulfed the city…”). This description was accompanied by the same image is as Condition #1 (no fire in the image).

These conditions allowed the researcher to compare the impact of metaphorical language on beliefs about the protests to the impact of seeing the metaphorical language’s literal counterpart — actual fire — on beliefs. After exposure to one of these three fictional stories about a protest, participants indicated how logical and how justified they believed it was for police to use water canons at the protest.

As predicted, when people saw fires in the image (accompanying the literal description), they found it more logical and justified to use a water cannon at the protest than when the image did not show fire (but had the same description).

The metaphorical fire language did not encourage people to legitimize the use of a water cannon as the image of fire at a protest did. The researcher suspected it may be that the metaphorical language could not shape the way people thought about the protests when it was accompanied by a visual image in which fire was not present — information in the visual modality may have overruled any effects of the linguistic metaphor on how people thought about the situation.

To test this follow-up prediction, the next experiment used the same two text conditions (literal, as in the prior conditions #1 and #2; or metaphorical, as in condition #3), but had no accompanying images.

In the second experiment, people who read the text containing the fire metaphors were more likely to legitimize the use of a water cannon than those who read the text with the literal description. Even though there was nothing about literal fire in those descriptions, people felt that using a water cannon was seen as more legitimate as a result of fire-related metaphorical language.

Together, these experiments show that an image of fire included with information about a protest or metaphorical language that compares the protest to fire can encourage people to view the use of a water cannon as more logical and justified than the same information without fire images or metaphors.

This work is a great reminder that we need to mind our metaphors, even — or especially — when communicating about emotionally charged issues and current events.



I’m just over halfway through teaching an intensive introduction to research methods in cognitive science right now. We’re discussing experiment logic, research ethics, and a variety of methods researchers can use to learn about cognition and behavior. The students are practicing scientific thinking, both in our class discussions and in their writing assignments. You can check out some of the fantastic work they’re doing on our class blog.

This is my first time as instructor of record, and the class meets for a 7 hours each week, so I knew from the start that there would be many challenges. One difficulty I hadn’t anticipated is how difficult it is to really gauge what the students are learning. Like really learning, not just memorizing or considering at a surface level. I’m trying a bunch of strategies that would seem to help with this challenge. Like:

  • Asking “What questions do you have?” instead of “Do you have questions?” a subtle difference that suggests I expect them to have questions and invite them to ask.
  • Building in lots of metacognitive or “formative assessment” opportunities — activities like homework reflections and in-class conceptual questions that are attempted individually and in small groups. These are intended to provide us all the chance to catch misconceptions or topics the students are unclear on.
  • An interim survey, asking students whether the pace of the class is too fast, too slow, or just right, and to describe elements of the class that are working for them and others that could be changed to improve their learning.

These strategies are all helping to some extent. Students are asking questions during class, we’re clarifying lecture topics in our group discussions, and the survey feedback indicated that for the most part, class speed, format, and expectations are all going fine.

Yet each time I leave class, I can’t with much confidence answer: Are the students really getting it? After the first few classes, this lingering question frustrated me. Of course one way to assess learning is through tests. We will have an exam, where I can get a sense of how well the students can repeat the content of my lectures back, and even how well they can apply the concepts I taught to new contexts, but of course tests can’t perfectly reflect what individual students have learned. Plus, the exam will take place after the last class, when there’s no time to remedy conceptual gaps or misconceptions. The exam is not the answer to this challenge. How can I gauge true learning in the meantime?

Since the first few classes, I’ve started to make peace with the fact that I might always leave class feeling less than 100% confident that the students really grasped whatever I was trying to convey. I’ve accepted the fact that gauging learning is really hard, especially in a class like this, where the primary goal is to lay a conceptual foundation that can be applied to research or scientific literacy later on. It’s hard, but I’ve learned and implemented the strategies I mentioned above because they chip away at the challenge. Realistically, I’m not going to be able to always know precisely what’s clear and what’s not (the students themselves can’t even always be expected to know if they’re clear on something). I’ll just have to keep trying to get as close as I can.

Metaphor shapes thought: When, why, and how?

A lot of concepts that are central to the human experience are abstract, things we can’t directly see or touch. For example, relationships, ideas, and time are concepts that we think and talk about a lot. We commonly use concrete language to talk and think about these things — we use metaphors.

A recent review paper I worked on with Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky focuses on the role that metaphors in language play in shaping our thoughts. We summarize numerous studies that show the power of metaphor to guide the way we think, and discuss cases in which metaphors are most influential. Here are some of my favorite takeaway points from the paper.

A lot of studies that show that metaphors shape the way we think

Climate change, illnesses, the stock market, crime… These are all important issues, and are among the many domains that have been investigated in “metaphor framing studies.” In these studies, researchers present information about the topic to their participants. The information usually includes one metaphor that the researchers intend to test. Other participants get identical information about that same issue, but their information includes a different metaphor. The researchers ask everyone the same opinion questions after, and measure differences in belief that can be attributed to the metaphor people read.

This method has been used to reveal that referring to a war against global warming encourages people to feel urgency for reducing emissions than a race against global warming (more on this study here).

Similar results have also revealed that ideas seem more exceptional when they’re referred to as light bulbs than as seeds. And that conflict hurts people’s idea of their relationship more when the relationship is described as a perfect union than as a journey. These studies and many others show that when we encounter a metaphor in natural language, we often reason about that metaphorical idea in ways that are consistent with the literal idea used to describe it.

Metaphors are most influential when people have just the right amount of prior knowledge

In order for the phrase Crime is a beast to shape the way you think about crime, you have to know something about crime already, and you have to know something about beasts. We review studies that show that when people don’t know enough or care enough about one of the topics, metaphors don’t persuade them. For example, students who liked sports were more in favor of a senior thesis requirement when it was framed with sports metaphors than when it wasn’t, but students who didn’t like sports were not affected at all by the sports metaphors.

At the same, metaphors are most persuasive when people don’t have too much knowledge or strong prior beliefs about the topic being described. For example, people who have deep-seated beliefs about crime are not as swayed by crime metaphors as those who don’t. In other work, when an experiment was designed to make people feel unconfident in their economic knowledge (by giving them a hard quiz), they were more likely to reason about an economic situation (a company’s bankruptcy) in metaphor-consistent ways than people who got an easy quiz, which inflated their confidence.

Metaphors are most effective, then, when people have not too much, or not too little knowledge on a topic — their knowledge level has to be just right.

Metaphors shape memory and attention

It’s useful for us to know that metaphor shapes thought, and when metaphor shapes thought, but it’s also important to work to understand how it does so. In many metaphor framing studies, participants receive a passage with a metaphor, and tend to reason in metaphor-consistent ways, but what’s going on in the space between those events? What is the mechanism through which metaphors exert their effects?

It seems that one way metaphors shape thought is by guiding what we pay attention to in a communication, and therefore what we remember about it. For example, an eye-tracking study revealed that people move their eyes in a path-like motion while they process metaphorical sentences, like “The road goes through the desert” (remember, roads don’t “go” anywhere – they stay still!) compared to literal sentences, like “the road is in the desert.” Eye movements are often used as an indicator of what people are paying most attention to, suggesting that metaphors can shape how people pay attention to incoming information.

In addition to reviewing what cognitive science has revealed about the relationship between metaphor and thought, our paper also reviews what we don’t yet know. To me, one of the most important areas for future work is to understand how insights from these theoretically informative and tightly controlled lab studies can be applied to addressing real-world issues. We’re starting with a solid foundation that shows us that metaphor does shape thought, but we still have much to do to figure out how to apply that knowledge.

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.

Metaphors in the mind become metaphors in the mouth: Documenting new ways of talking about time

My husband Steven and I were planning a summer vacation to hike through New England. Planning this trip felt like putting a puzzle together, searching for the solution that optimized for flight prices, my research timeline, and his vacation time. Finally, we were converging on a solution, which Steven summed up: “So we’ll move our original plan five days to the right.”

As a native English speaker, my first reaction to a phrase like that is hm, that’s an odd way to say it, but I think I get the gist. “Shift to the right” means “move the trip later.”

Who says things like that? Members of the US Military do, according to recent research I’ve collaborated with Tyler Marghetis and Benjamin Bergen on, and they don’t necessarily confine their specialized language to military contexts. Steven, a Captain in the U.S. Army, offers a glimpse into language practices we’ve observed in military members more broadly.

This finding helps us better understand the relationship between how we talk about abstract ideas like time and how we think about them.

Across many languages, people talk about time in similar ways to how they think about it. In English, for example, we say things like good times are ahead of us and looking back on the past, and cognitive psychology work has shown that we actually think of the future as in front of us and the past as behind. There are similar findings for other languages as well. Earlier work shows that linguistic metaphors for describing time can actually shape the way we think about it — saying things like the future is ahead is not just a rhetorical flourish.

But what about the reverse relationship — that our habitual thought about abstract ideas like time might make their way into language? This relationship is hard to document since language changes slowly over time, and people’s conceptualizations of topics like time are elusive. English speakers think about time is that we do often rely on a mental timeline that places earlier events to the left of right ones. But we don’t normally talk about earlier events to the left of later ones. Military members’ use of left-right metaphors provided us a chance to see a shift occurring, where these left-right mental timelines that many English speakers share have begun to seep into speech for a subset of English speakers.

To understand these left-right metaphors, we had military members and civilians read sentences about time and tell us how acceptable they considered each to be on a scale of 1-7. Both groups agreed that sentences like The meeting was moved two days later were very acceptable. However, military members found sentences containing the words left and right to describe rescheduling to be more acceptable than civilians did. In particular, they reported that a dynamic use of these words (move the meeting to the right) was more acceptable than a static use (the meeting on Friday is to the right of Wednesday). This suggests to us that this population uses these metaphors systematically — they don’t simply substitute the word left for earlier and right for later, but instead have specific circumstances when using the metaphors are more typical than others.

We also found that officers were especially accepting of these dynamic left-right metaphors for talking about events in time, more so than enlisted (non-officer) personnel. Why might this be? We can’t be sure from the data we have since there are many ways that officers and enlisted members may differ, but one difference that stood out to us is that officers are the ones who make the plans that enlisted soldiers carry out. Not only are people more likely to talk about events moving left and right if they’re the ones making plans, but the tools that officers use to make those plans also emphasize time as flowing from left to right. Whereas a canonical calendar in the English-speaking world shows seven days from left to right and then begins again on a new row, the Duty Roster — a fundamental military planning tool — doesn’t depict subsequent weeks or months below each other — they just keep going on the same line. Thus, while English speakers do tend to think of time as flowing from left to right, military planning practices an even greater left-right timeline, which was reflected in their speech.


Documenting the existence of these left-right metaphors for talking about time and the way that military members use them provides us a glimpse into how patterns of thought can become patterns in language. Can these patterns in language in turn shape the way that military members think about time? This work leaves that question open, but it’s one we hope to tackle. Continuing to understand the relationship between language and thought — particularly about abstract and ubiquitous concepts like time — contributes a piece to the huge puzzle of what makes humans the brilliant creatures that we are.

This is work I completed with Drs. Ben Bergen at UCSD and Tyler Marghetis at Indiana University, Bloomington. We’re presenting it this week at the annual Cognitive Science Society meeting in London (CogSci 2017). You can also check out our poster.

Refugee for a day: A glimpse into the ugliness and the beauty humans are capable of

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

But mostly, it was the worst, as 300 exhausted passengers fended for themselves to find cots at 3am in Boston’s Logan Airport.

At first we were mildly frustrated, as we waited 3 hours at the gate for our flight that was continually delayed for mechanical reasons. Our frustration grew when we then learned that our flight was canceled for the evening: “Sorry, folks, we’re not going to be able to fly out tonight. Please go to counter 36 for more information and hotel vouchers.”

We vacillated between hope and despair as we waited for 5 more hours for hotel vouchers and new flight reservations that never materialized for most of us. We started seeing glimmers of hope in everything (A man with a suit! He’s coming to fix the problem!). By 3am even our mirages were put to rest when an announcement informed us that there were no more available hotels in the Boston area and that we would receive more information at 10am.

Based on the avoidant airline personnel we had encountered to that point, few people were surprised when 10am came and went, and we had received no update. By 2pm, we were receiving new tickets for a flight that would take off at 5. By 8pm, after another delay because the flight crew had been stuck in traffic on their way to airport, we were out of emotions. A converted air tanker took off over the Atlantic Ocean 29 hours after scheduled departure with over 300 zombies on board.

During those 29 hours, my fellow passengers and I witnessed some of the ugliness humans are capable of. Some people jogged and jostled each other each time an announcement directed us to form yet another line – for hotel vouchers, meal tickets, or new boarding passes. At random intervals, a new passenger would break down and start shouting, so the state police came to make sure things remained civil. When the airport employees brought “food” and drinks to the line of people waiting for nonexistent hotel vouchers, some people rushed to grab what they could from the stash of mini water bottles and bags of Cheez-Its that made you wonder if someone in the factory had snagged a handful before sealing the bag with 5 crackers in it.

Some people were hesitant to leave the ticketing area, so they brought their cots over to not lose their place in line.

Our mass sleepover in Logan airport was uncomfortable and denigrating, but for every sneer there were many smiles. We were not happy to be stuck in an airport, but the fact was that we were there. We got to know each other, we commiserated and, somehow, we laughed. I learned that to a Brit, Cheez-Its taste like sweaty socks. We shared – iPhones for those who needed to make calls, sweatshirts (because damn, air conditioned airports are really cold when you don’t have a blanket), and the coveted cots and blankets once we got our hands on them.

A week after this debacle, I still look back and cringe at this experience. But the entire time, I knew I’d get to a comfortable bed eventually where I could sleep for 11 hours. I knew I’d have a good meal and a glass of wine at the end of the trip. When I stopped griping for a moment, I realized that knowing that those comforts were in my near future was a lot more than many people can say, as they find themselves wondering where they’ll sleep tonight, tomorrow night, and for the foreseeable future. We lived like refugees for one night, and it was a pain. But many people do it for years.



What’s going on in our minds when language shapes how we think?

This is the second post in a two-part series on a new paper my advisor Lera Boroditsky and I published that shows that learning a new way to talk about time creates new ways of thinking about it. You can check out the first post here.

A lot of psychology research measures behavior — what people do, often in a lab experiment — as a way of understanding what they’re thinking.

For example, in some of my favorite work by Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky, participants read about a crime problem in a fictional city. The problem was described metaphorically, either as a beast or as a virus. After reading about the problem, participants indicated what the city officials should do to solve the crime problem. Those who had read that crime was a beast were more likely to suggest punitive solutions, as one would likely suggest if a literal beast were ravaging the city, than those who read that crime was a virus. In this experiment, the researchers measured people’s behaviors — their suggestions for dealing with the crime — as a way of understanding how the crime metaphors shaped their thoughts.

Thought is a pretty tricky thing to measure, especially when it’s about high-level topics like crime, and our behaviors give researchers a useful glimpse into the mind. But behavioral evidence still leaves us asking what’s actually going on in people’s minds when metaphors shape the way we think.


In our recent work, participants learned new ways to talk about time. We then measured their subconscious associations between different parts of space and different aspects of time, and their behavior suggested that they now thought about time in ways that were consistent with how they learned to talk about it.

We wanted to learn more about how this was happening. We call this new way of thinking — associating earlier events with either higher or lower parts of space, depending on the metaphors a person learned — a new representation. We think of this new representation as a new timeline a person has in mind. We wondered whether this new representation that people acquired through the metaphors they learned in our lab was a kind that relied on language while they were using it.

For example, we know that counting items is a kind of representation or cognitive routine that does require a person to engage their language capacities in their mind, even when they’re not talking out loud. Intuitively this makes sense — when you ask yourself what’s going on in your mind when you count an array of objects, it might make sense that you’re actually saying “one, two, three…” in your head as you count. Researchers have indeed been able to show that this is what’s going on in our minds when we count by having people memorize strings of letters (which requires them to rehearse the letters in their head, saying something like “F, J, D, C, P, R” silently to themselves while also trying to count objects. Under this condition, often referred to as verbal interference, people (specifically MIT students) struggle to even count an array of dots accurately. This result is taken as evidence that counting objects relies on our ability to engage in a linguistic routine in our heads, since the verbal interference, which also relies on the ability to engage in a linguistic routine, disrupted counting performance.

When participants learned new metaphors for time in our experiment, we also wanted to find out whether their newly learned mental timelines also required a linguistic routine for the metaphors to exert their effects on mental timelines. To that end, we had participants complete the typical task measuring their subconscious space-time associations while they were mentally rehearsing a string of letters, as the researchers in the counting work did. The mental rehearsal taxed their linguistic working memory, leaving them unable to engage these linguistic cognitive resources for other tasks. If they needed to engage those resources for the new metaphors to shape how they think about time, we should see that they no longer associate the parts of space and time that their metaphors suggested when they undergo verbal interference at the same time.

We found that even under verbal interference, people showed mental timelines that were consistent with the new metaphors they learned in our lab. In other words, learning a new way to talk about time shaped how people thought about it, and it was not just because people were adopting a new routine in their minds, subvocalizing to themselves, “earlier is up, later is down” (or vice versa) while doing the main task. Language can shape non-linguistic thought patterns.

But what is going on in our minds when we learn new metaphors for time that shape how we think about it? Are we imagining earlier events (like breakfast) as being physically above or below later events (dinner)? We’re still not sure, but there’s no shortage of mysteries to work on to better understand how language shapes our thoughts about topics as ubiquitous as time.

Much more than a way of talking: Metaphors in language shape how we think

We gather a lot of knowledge through our physical experiences in the world: what a good steak tastes like, how to get from home to work, or how it feels to be caught in a downpour. But at the same time, many of the topics that are most central to our lives, like the concepts of love, justice, or time, aren’t things we can directly experience, for example by seeing, touching, or tasting them. How, then, do we make sense of them?

One way we develop these concepts in our minds is by thinking about them in terms of concepts we do have direct experiences with. We use metaphors like love is a journey to conceptualize love in terms of a more concrete idea, a journey. Research I conducted with my advisor Lera Boroditsky shows that linguistic metaphors can actually cause us to think about concepts like time in new ways.

In our lab, we taught participants new ways of talking about time that used vertical terms to talk about sequences of events. For example, some people learned that earlier events take place above later ones. They were told things like Tuesday is higher than Wednesday, and When we eat dinner, breakfast is above us. Other people learned the opposite system of metaphors, that earlier events take place below later ones.

After learning these metaphors, participants completed a task that measures how much they subconsciously associate different parts of space with different aspects of time. This task didn’t require language to complete it (people saw pictures and pressed buttons to indicate the order that events happened in), so there was no encouragement for people to even connect this task with the earlier part of the experiment in which they learned new ways to talk about time.

We found that people associated space with time in ways that were consistent with the new metaphors they had just learned. Those who learned that earlier events happen above later ones tended to associate earlier events with higher space than later events and vice versa.

Learning a new way to talk about time creates new ways of thinking about it.

This work is based on a foundation of research pointing to similarities between the way we talk and think about time. Across languages, people often use spatial language to talk about time. For example in English, we can have a long meeting or time can fly by, we look forward to the future and back on the past, and it’s appropriate to say either that we’re approaching a deadline or that the deadline is approaching us. In all of these cases, the metaphors we use to talk about time suggest that passage of time is akin to movement through space.

Using space to talk about time is not specific to English. Many languages include similar metaphors, though different aspects of space can be associated with different aspects of time. For example, the Aymara, a group in South America, refer to the past as ahead of them and the future as behind, a reversal of the English convention. Similarly, speakers of Mandarin Chinese can use vertical language — the same words that mean up and down — when talking about time.

Screen Shot 2017-07-01 at 10.03.42 AM

We don’t just use spatial language to talk about time, but we actually think about time in ways that are consistent with the specific spatial metaphors our language uses. For example, English speakers lean slightly forward when thinking about the future and back when thinking about the past, and demonstrate subconscious associations between space in front of the body and the future and space behind the body and the past on reaction time tasks. These studies suggest that we’re often drawing on our knowledge of space when we think about time.

Does the language we use to talk about time (like the future ahead of us and past behind) cause us to actually think of time in consistent ways, or do we use these spatial metaphors because we naturally think about the future in front of us and the past behind? This is pretty much a textbook chicken-and-egg problem.

Both possibilities could be true, but existing research can’t shed light on causal relationships. Showing that Mandarin speakers think about time vertically (consistent with their metaphors in language) and English speakers do not doesn’t tell us that different metaphors cause differences in thought — there are many ways in which two groups of people who speak different languages will differ, and it’s impossible to know whether any of those factors actually lead to an observed difference in thinking about time between the two groups. In order to make the causal claim — to know whether metaphors in language can actually shape the way people think about time — we needed to randomly assign participants to conditions. By teaching all participants a new way of talking in the lab, that’s exactly what we did — we randomly assigned some to the group that learned that earlier events are above later ones and others to the group that learned that earlier events are below. This way we could be sure that the metaphors participants learned, and not some other uncontrolled difference between the two groups, was the reason the two groups differed in the way they associated vertical space and time.

This work shows that metaphors in language can shape the way people think. In fact, learning a new way of talking about time can foster new ways of thinking about this topic that is central to our everyday lives.

In the second (and final) post in this series, I’ll dive more into what was actually going on in people’s minds when these new metaphors shaped how they think about time.

Here’s the link to the original article

Vaccinating, metaphorically and literally

There’s a lot of bad (either misleading or blatantly false) science information on the Internet. Science communicators often try to combat the bad content by dumping as much accurate information as they can into the world, but that strategy is not as effective as many would hope. One reason it’s not effective is that social circles on the Internet are echo chambers: people tend to be follow like-minded others. Scientists and science communicators follow each other, and skeptics follow each other, so we rarely even hear what others outside our circle are talking about. Plus, when we do encounter evidence that contradicts our beliefs, we tend to discount it and keep believing what we already did.

A recent study by Sander van der Linden, Anthony Leiserowitz, Seth Rosenthal, & Edward Maibach (that I recently wrote about) gives a glimmer of hope to this science communication trap: communicators may be able to “vaccinate” their audiences against misinformation. They found that if people are cued in to the kinds of tactics that opponents of global warming deploy, they’re less likely to believe them. This finding offers some hope in a time when the proliferation of fake and misleading science information seems inevitable. Scientific facts, along with a heads up about anti-scientific strategies, can help people better evaluate the information they receive to form evidence-based beliefs and decisions.

Does this apply to other scientific issues? Can we vaccinate against anti-vaccination rhetoric?

I don’t know. But I’d like to find out. In order to design a communication that alerts people about anti-vaccine messages they might encounter, it’s important to understand anti-vaccine tactics. I explored some very passionate corners of the Internet (videos, discussion threads, and blog posts by anti-vaccine proponents) for a better understanding. Here are the anti-vaccine tactics I found, a lot of which are described in this SciShow video:

Ethos: Appeal to Authority

First, note that this immunologist isn’t explicitly saying that children shouldn’t be vaccinated. But the quote implies so much. I don’t know if that’s actually her belief, but regardless, as a consumer of this image, I do get the sense that she looks pretty smart (#educated, in fact), and maybe she knows what she’s talking about…


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There are four chemical names in the first five lines of the ad above. It sounds like whoever wrote it must really know their science. The message implies that the author has deep scientific knowledge about the chemicals mentioned and wants to warn you of their presence in vaccines. Paired with our society’s tendency to believe that all things “natural” are good, and all things “chemical” are enemies, this jargon-wielding author might appeal as someone worth listening to. Most of us (and I am definitely included here) don’t know much or anything about those chemicals — how do they work? Are they actually dangerous in the doses found in vaccines? This jargon paves the way for persuasion through the naturalistic fallacy — the idea that all natural things are better than non-natural things.

Logos: Appeal to “Logic”

Logical fallacies

A logical fallacy is faulty logic disguised as real logic, and it’s another common tactic used by anti-vaccine proponents. In the Tweet above, the author presents two facts, implying that they’re connected (that an increase in mandatory vaccines led to a change from 20th to 37th in the worldwide ranking of infant mortality rates. Just because America “lost ground” on this ranking, it doesn’t necessarily mean our mortality rate even went up — it’s likely that many other nations’ mortality went down. Plus, there are so many other factors beyond number of mandatory vaccines that influence infant mortality rate, and no evidence supplied by the Tweet that vaccines and mortality are related. They’re just two pieces of information, placed next to each other to give a sense of a causal relationship.

There are lots of ways logic can be distorted to suggest that vaccines are bad. One that really stands out to me is the suggestion that if vaccines work, why should we care if some children are not vaccinated? After all, they’ll be the ones who get sick… why does it concern the rest of us?

It does. For one, no child should end up with a paralyzing or fatal disease because their parent chose to disregard scientific consensus. But one person’s choice not to vaccinate directly affects others — for example, people who CAN’T be vaccinated for health reasons. If everyone else receives vaccines, that one person who cannot is safe thanks to “community immunity.” But if others stop receiving those vaccines, the person who had no choice but to remain unvaccinated is susceptible. This person is unjustly at danger as a result of others’ choices.

Pathos: Appeal to Emotion


Fear is a powerful motivator. Appeals to ethos and logos can work together to have an emotional effect. Parents just want to do their best for their kids, so messages that strike up fears about the harms of vaccines have a good chance of swaying them.

One way of drumming up fear is to promote vaccine proponents as bullies, as this article demonstrates:

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Yea, that description sounds pretty scary to me… Breakdown Radio. Link to article

Considerations for inoculation messages

Of course, I’ve just scratched the surface with these tactics that anti-vaccine proponents use (you can get an idea of some others in a post on how the anti-vax movement uses psychology to endanger us by Dr. Doom) Messages that vaccinate against misconceptions have to walk an extremely fine line. The goal of such a message is to foreshadow misleading messages a person may encounter, and to point out the reasons that message should be reconsidered.

Vaccine messages might be useful when they introduce new information, but they also need to be proactive, anticipating anti-vaccine rhetoric and alerting people to its flaws. There are a few dangers in doing so, though. For one, it often requires repeating the misconception, and research shows that doing so can backfire and reinforce the inaccuracy instead. In addition, pointing out flaws in an argument that someone might be prone to believing can alienate that person. If the warning message isn’t constructed conscientiously (for example, if it suggests that seeing through the misleading information is a no-brainer), it can imply that anyone who might believe the misconceptions is an idiot. A message like this will make some members of the audience feel defensive (wow, am I an idiot? No, I can’t be an idiot. Maybe this author of this message is the idiot…).

That doesn’t mean that inoculation messages can’t be effective. We have some evidence to suggest they can, and I think there’s a lot of room to continue honing this strategy. The first step in a successful inoculation message is to uncover the tactics used by those who misrepresent the science. Then it’s important to raise awareness of those tactics without alienating the audience and while being careful not to repeat the misinformation in a way that can be construed as reinforcing it.

Communicators can keep in mind that anti-vaccine messages often attempt to establish authority, tap into emotions, and apply misleading logic in order to convince people of their message. By anticipating these strategies, we can have greater success in counteracting them and promoting vaccines as the life-saving technologies they are.

More information


By teaching, we learn: A retrospective on teaching about blogging

On the surface, teaching and learning have a pretty straightforward relationship: we learn something, and then we teach it, so that others can learn it (and maybe even teach it themselves). This does happen, but the learning-teaching relationship is far less linear than this might imply.

First, teachers and professors learn a topic well enough that they decide they can teach it. Sometimes they’re an expert in the topic, and other times they know the gist of a topic and (more importantly) where they can learn more.

Then they plan the course, during this phase, they often realize how much they don’t know. So they learn more. As they continue planning, they’ll put together lectures. This is another crucial part of the learning-teaching relationship, since teachers start distilling information from other sources into their own words to fit with their own course structure. Now they’re really learning.

Then comes the day of the lecture. The students might assume the professor knows all there is to know about the topic, and the professor hopefully feels prepared. During the lecture, hopefully students will ask questions. Some the professor will be able to answer — she’s already learned this stuff! But other questions might be more challenging. They might make apparent to the teacher what she doesn’t yet know. Hopefully she then tries to find the answer (if an answer exists). She learns again, and maybe communicates what she learned to the student who asked the question — so she teaches again.

This is a classroom example of how learning and teaching are inseparable — they often must happen simultaneously, since each supports the other.


Teaching BlogSci

This quarter, I was fortunate to experience this tangle of teaching and learning for science blogging. I co-taught a seminar with Prof. Seana Coulson to introduce students to science blogging and guide them toward creating their own blog posts about Cognitive Science Research.

I’ve blogged for a few years and have paid some attention to other science blogs, implicitly gaining an understanding of the topics and strategies that make for the most engaging posts. But planning the class drove me to find and synthesize new science communication resources. Then I shared what I’ve learned with the class, and they asked great questions. Often these questions sparked the realization for me that I didn’t know the answer — and until they asked it, I didn’t know I didn’t know it.

Those moments can be unsettling (isn’t the instructor supposed to know the answer to topic-related questions?), or we can embrace them. For example, students wanted to know what makes for a good blog post title. For the final class, I asked around and looked up what other bloggers believe makes a good title, which we discussed as a class, but then we just experimented. We listed potential titles, shared them with the group, and got input on which were most compelling. We did some background research, and then we experimented.

Although I was one of the instructors, I didn’t know the answer to the post title question ahead of time. The seminar provided an opportunity for me to discover topics I didn’t know, and then work with the group to learn more. This is one example of many that show that I learned in order to teach the group, then learned while teaching the group, and in many cases, learned after formally teaching, once I realized how much was left to learn.

I’m grateful for the bright, curious students who fueled this process.

Seneca purportedly said Docendo discimus: By teaching, we learn. So my experience of learning while teaching is not novel. Instead, it’s an application of a timeless concept to a very modern one — blogging about science.

To learn more about our seminar and read the students’ polished products, check out our class blog: UCSDBlogSci.