Wars are everywhere: When should we use these metaphors, and when should we reframe?

How many wars have you encountered today? Maybe you saw a headline about the war in Afghanistan or elsewhere, but it’s even more likely that you read an article or had a conversation about a figurative war: like the war on cancer, obesity, or poverty. Maybe you’ve even heard about wars on salad, plastic bags, or Pantsuit Nation. There are a lot of wars going on right now.

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A recent paper by Stephen Flusberg, Teenie Matlock, and Paul Thibodeau shines a spotlight on these war metaphors. The researchers combine insights from psychology, linguistics, and sociology to discuss why we use war metaphors, how they shape our thinking, and recommendations for productively communicating about figurative wars.  Here are some things I learned while reading their paper.

Why so many wars?

One study found that 17% of all Times Magazine articles published between 1981 and 2000 and 15% of all Newsweek articles published in the same time span contained at least one war metaphor. Considering the breadth of topics those magazines cover, the figures suggest that there are a lot of figurative wars in their pages (and, by extension, in public discourse).

There are a couple explanations for the popularity of war metaphors. First, they draw on common shared knowledge. Most people know a lot about literal wars. We have structured knowledge about them — for example, that wars are caused by disputes, involve militaries that engage in different forms of physical fighting, and that wars end with winners and losers. When someone uses a war metaphor, then, their audience will almost definitely understand the domain being referenced and will have a wealth of knowledge to connect to the topic at hand.

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War metaphors also carry a sense of urgency. They can tap into emotions, capture attention, and motivate action. These features are helpful when a communicator’s intention is to change the way people think and behave about something. For example, referring to a war on obesity might trigger a sense of fear and urgency for many people, inspiring them to get off their couch or advocate for healthier school lunch options.

Another reason war metaphors are used often is precisely because they’re common. We’re so familiar with war metaphors that when we encounter one it’s not difficult to process it; we can do so almost automatically. This process acts like a growing snowball — the more we encounter war metaphors, the more natural they are to us, so the more likely we are to keep using them. Fighting cancer is a good example of this, since it’s such a common sentiment that we hardly even notice it’s a metaphor anymore.

Are war metaphors helpful? Hurtful?

Yes.

Studies show that war metaphors can instill a sense of urgency and motivate people to change their mindsets and behavior, which is often necessary. For example, when people read about a war against climate change, they felt more urgency for reducing emissions and indicated they were more willing to change their behaviors to reduce their carbon footprint than when they read about a race against climate change. The intensity of the war metaphor shaped mindsets in a way that the race metaphor did not.

But war metaphors can also have unintended counterproductive consequences for the way people think about issues. For example, when a cancer experience is referred to as a battle, people are more likely to think the sick person will feel guilty if they don’t recover than when it’s referred to as a journey. For patients, referring to their experience as a war can be de-motivating, as shown, for example, by a study that found that people who thought of their experience as a battle experienced more anxiety and depression than those who thought of their experience as a journey. War-terms also make people less likely to endorse cancer prevention behaviors than neutral terms.

People also have less favorable views of police officers when they’re referred to as warriors than as guardians, and they’re more likely to endorse violence when war metaphors are used in a political context or in a discussion of a worker strike. These instances of war metaphors that lead people to reason in counterproductive ways underlie my discomfort with the war on science.

Ursula Le Guin’s thoughts about war metaphors sum up one of their major limitations:

War as a moral metaphor is limited, limiting, and dangerous. By reducing the choices of action to ‘a war against’ whatever-it-is, you divide the world into Me or Us (good) and Them or It (bad) and reduce the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off.

Guidelines for using war metaphors

Metaphors shape thought by tapping into our complex and structured ways of thinking about the world, and emphasizing certain features of the topic at hand. For this reason, metaphors will mean different things for different people (and especially across different cultures) and in different contexts, so their effects on reasoning will vary. There’s no black-and-white advice for whether to use war metaphors or not, but research has started to reveal how they affect reasoning in different circumstances. This research has paved the way for a few recommendations:

  • Use war metaphors when the topic being described really poses an imminent threat, since they can tap into people’s emotions and incite fear. Climate change is one of those issues. Salad is not.
  • Use war metaphors only when the topic being described actually shares features with wars. If people can’t immediately understand why something is being compared to a war, the metaphor will likely detract from any effective persuasion.
  • Use war metaphors initially, and then reframe. They can draw attention to an issue and elicit an emotional response, but they lose efficacy over time as they become overly familiar and people tune out (just as public enthusiasm toward literal wars tends to wane over time).
  • Explain how the issue at hand is like a war, and how it is not. Since war frames will not have the same effect in all contexts, misunderstandings can be avoided by explaining the connection between the given topic and a war, instead of expecting all people to identify the same connections in all circumstances.

War metaphors make up a large part of public discourse, so it’s important for us to keep working to understand how they shape our thoughts and when they should be used (or avoided). This paper provided a useful analysis for communicators who want to help people think about some of society’s most pressing issues in new ways. But since we still have a lot of research to do on these metaphors, communicators should wield them with caution.

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Thriving while PhDing, Part 1: Academic Resources

As I’m wrapping up my PhD, I’ve been reflecting a lot (my alternative is to write my dissertation, so…). How have I gotten where I am? What are the ingredients that have helped me develop a research program on the relationship between metaphor and cognition, to present and publish this work? What wisdom have I absorbed as I’ve woven eleven experiments into a behemoth of a thesis?

I credit much of my own success to many resources that other people have been generous enough to create and share. Here I’ve compiled a list of my favorites — those that provided ideas or skills that I latched onto and others that I wish I had discovered earlier.

General Guides & PhD Advice

  • Philip Guo’s (free!) PhD memoir: It’s awesome to read about someone else’s experience doing a PhD, even though much of the PhD process differs greatly from one person to the next.
  • So long, and thanks for the Ph.D.! by Ronald Azuma: Discussing many of the most important traits for success in a PhD program, including initiative, tenacity, flexibility, interpersonal skills, organization skills, and communication skills. Azuma also includes insights on choosing an advisor and committee, keeping perspective while in grad school, and seeking a job after.
  • Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students by Stephen Stearns: This one has some points and that I especially appreciate now, at the tail end of my PhD, like psychological problems are the biggest barriers and avoid taking lectures — they’re usually inefficient.
  • Ten types of PhD supervisor relationships – which is yours? by Susanna Chamberlain. Every advisor is unique, so might not actually fit into these 10 types, but your relationship with them is crucial for your mental help and academic success. Put in the effort to figure out the dos and don’ts of working with your supervisor, and take managing that relationship very seriously.
  • How to manage your PhD supervisor by Kevin O’Gorman & Robert MacIntosh. This topic is seriously really important. This piece includes concrete recommendations.
  • Five things successful PhD students refuse to do by Dr. Isaiah Hankel. Because what you don’t do is sometimes just as important as what you do.
  • Deliberate Grad School by Andrew Critch. The point is simple, yet something that’s really hard to remember when you’re entrenched in a PhD: “you have to be deliberate to get the most out of a PhD program, rather than passively expecting it to make you into anything in particular.” This article is focused on the ways you can actually make the world a better place while working on your PhD, which I find a really productive way to think about the process.
  • A survival guide to starting and finishing a PhD by Nathan Yau. A post in which the author reflects on what he’d tell his pre-PhD self if he could go back in time. His heartening conclusion: “A PhD can be fun if you let it.”
  • The N=1 guide to grad school (and hopefully, knowledge work) by Adam Marcus, with friends. Some of the advice here applies mainly to computer science, but it’s a thorough and interesting read with plenty more links contained within for those who want to go down the grad school rabbit hole.

Intangibles

  • Academic “older siblings”: These people don’t need to actually be older than you, they just need to have some wisdom and background in your field that you admire. Ideally, they’re not faculty, but are instead grad students or post docs, since they’ll be much more likely to have time to walk you through that new analysis or might be better at identifying with your grad school troubles. My academic older sibs were not in my lab, but our research areas were similar. It was always a morale boost to be able to learn from and emulate people a few steps ahead of me in their academic careers.
  • Talks and questions: Go to as many talks as you can in your first couple of years. Pay attention to the way the speaker frames their topic — what kinds of information are they telling the audience? How do they weave theory and experiments together? How do they present their findings? What kinds of questions do people in the audience ask? This will provide implicit learning opportunities. Before you can do great research, you have to truly internalize what great research in your field is. Reading papers is another way to do so, but I found the in-person observation experiences to be irreplaceable.
  • Contribute to the academic community: It’s important to pull yourself out of your own work and participate in your intellectual community. You can pick up beer for happy hour, cook a dish for the department holiday party, or volunteer more regularly. I spent one year as the grad student rep at faculty meetings, which taught me tons about the dynamics of the department and allowed me to make sure grad student voices were heard when topics of interest to us were discussed. I also spent two years as the larger Cognitive Science Society’s grad student rep, and contributed to the society website and social media, served on a committee to assist scientists who couldn’t come to our annual conference because of the travel ban, and created an event at the conference to offer a professional development opportunity to grad students. It’s important to do things like this because we depend on our departments and societies to support and promote our work, and it sometimes has unexpected personal benefits too, since influential people in your field now know who you are and that you can get stuff done.

Specific Skill Resources

If you’re in a science field, there will probably be technical skills you need to learn or improve for your research. For me, that was mainly programming: I had to figure out efficient ways to implement experiments on the computer, often online, and to analyze the data they generated.

  • Data Science courses from Johns Hopkins on Coursera. I did a handful of these courses, and they were helpful for learning to use R for statistical analyses. A strength of these courses was that they gave a good sense of context, so I could actually apply the principles they discussed to my own data. Importantly, you do not need to pay for these. You can audit every class in the series.
  • R Resources. Dan Mirman’s Cheat Sheet here is extremely helpful. It’s well-organized so that even when you’re not quite sure what function you’re looking for, you have a sense of where on the sheet to look. Once you find the function, the sheet tells you how to use it.
  • How much statistics do psychological scientists need to know? Also, a reading list by Xenia Schmalz. Her answer to “how much statistics…?” is “As much as possible,” which resonates with my experience. I actually just recently found this guide so haven’t taken advantage of many of the resources suggested, but they look great.
  • Statistics Tutorials by Bodo Winter. Linear models and mixed models have become extremely popular in my field, because they allow you to model your data and understand how much variance your factors (as main effects and interactions) explain, while also taking individual participants and stimuli into account. Because they’re so powerful, they’re also a bit complicated to learn, but I’ve returned to Bodo Winter’s tutorials many times because they describe what’s really going on when you use these models and include detailed examples.
  • jsPsych by Josh de Leeuw. jsPsych is a “JavaScript library for creating and running behavioral experiments in a web browser,” which is incredibly useful for making experiments available to a broader audience than the typical participant pool (undergraduates who can participate in person) and for collecting data quickly. There’s thorough documentation, a tutorial for getting started, and a Google group for getting help when you hit snags. I used jsPsych for at least half of the experiments that have made it into my dissertation.
  • Research Digest: Thinking about Statistics by Christopher Madan. A great reading list covering statistics concepts to actually help you understand what all your numbers and analyses mean.

These lists just scratch the surface of resources that have helped me thrive academically while working on my PhD. Please let me know if you have other favorites I should consider adding.

In my next post, I’ll continue to share resources that have been crucial to my success in grad school, but this time I’ll focus on my top personal resources — things that helped me stay healthy, both physically and mentally, and motivated to do my work.

You think you want to do a PhD… Where to start?

Five years ago, as I began my final year as an undergraduate, I had taken the GRE, crafted a list of cognitive science and psychology faculty whose work fascinated me, and started drafting my personal statement to apply to PhD programs. I wanted to be a professor, so I knew a PhD was a step I would take.

But honestly, at a small liberal arts college, I had had little exposure to graduate students at that point (though I had spent a summer volunteering in a lab with some phenomenal grad student role models). My work study “research assistant” jobs had included reading sentence after sentence and tagging each part of speech (computer science), “helping” a professor design a survey about college students’ study habits (psychology), and fetching books from the library (religion). So I wasn’t super versed in what it meant to do research.

Nonetheless, I wanted to do a PhD. Maybe you’re in a similar boat as an undergraduate, or maybe you’ve already graduated and gotten a job, and you feel called back to grad school. This guide reflects what I’ve learned from my own experience and from observing others applying to PhD programs. My experience is specifically in cognitive science, officially considered a “social science,” so this advice may not pertain to others in very different fields.

Reasons to do a PhD

As Craig Ferguson said about comedy, I’m convinced you should only do a PhD “because you can’t not do it.”

Research is the defining feature of a PhD. Most of your time in grad school is centered around completing research (which can be slow at times, since you’re often learning the necessary skills as you go). PhD courses are often focused on synthesizing existing research, and conferences are for sharing new research.

You know you’re called to do research if you have questions about how the world works that you don’t think have been addressed yet. In my case, I had read cool papers about how language seems to shape thought, but I still needed to know really, how does that work?!

These points probably make it clear why a Andy Greenspon points out: “A PhD program is not simply a continuation of your undergraduate program.” A love of taking classes, of being a student in the way most of us think of it, is not on its own a good reason to do a PhD. If you’re still a little fuzzy on what life in graduate school is actually like, talk to as many grad students as you can, and search for more info online to try to learn more about their experiences. One piece I especially like is by Richard Gao, another grad student in my department, at the end of his first year.

Grad students are eager to share.

Prerequisites

Do you need a Master’s to get into a PhD program? No. Definitely no. Master’s programs are usually focused on coursework, and they often teach very different things than are required for a PhD. You’ll take courses in the process of getting a PhD, and you will technically acquire a Master’s degree along the way.

You will be a great candidate for a PhD program if you have research experience and questions that drive you, not if you have an extra degree on your CV.

Where to apply

Resist the urge to add all the Ivies to your application list as a default. A GradHacker post On the Art of Selecting a Graduate Program tells readers, “the reputation of a university as a whole does not equal the reputation of a university’s departments.” People in your field are not necessarily wooed by seeing that you earned a PhD from Harvard if Harvard is not actually a leader in your field. A generally prestigious university can have mediocre departments, and a less prestigious university can have some top-notch departments. It’s crucial to focus on where the great research in your field is taking place.

“Good” departments are determined by the faculty who work in them. This means that your search should be researcher-driven. Whose work are you excited by? Make this list. This it your dream team.

Then, what other researchers have those researchers collaborated with? Whose work do they tend to cite in their papers? And who often cites the dream team? Add those researchers to your list, and look up everyone’s affiliations. You now have a first draft list that likely includes the best institutions for you and your interests. And since your search is researcher-focused, the next appropriate step is to look up the other researchers in the same program.

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An article by Joan E. Strassmann has more Q&As about choosing your program that will likely also be helpful.

Actually applying

By now, you have a good sense of the importance of research for the PhD process. Your application should reflect that understanding. You should be comfortable talking about the research you’ve been a part of (both in writing and in person, should you get an in-person interview). What was your role? What methods were used, and why? What were the findings, and what do they mean? What questions remain?

Why do you want to pursue a PhD? What are your long-term goals? What skills do you hope to gain from the process, and what research questions do you want to work on?These are questions you should be able to answer for yourself before you apply, but you also need to be ready to articulate them for others when you do. You won’t be accepted to a PhD program if your application doesn’t make it clear that your goals and research interests fit with those of the people already in the program you’re applying to.

Applying for a PhD requires a lot of intellectual self-reflection. It’s not easy. But it’s necessary to do this work before jumping head-first into a multi-year commitment (4-7 years is within the normal range from my experience). Once you start working on a PhD, you might realize that the questions and goals that initially drove you to start have changed. That’s ok, of course, and maybe even common. But the more self-reflection you do and information you gather about your field ahead of time, the more you will be set up for success once you actually begin grad school.

Crowdsourced questions and answers about doing a PhD

About once a week, I receive an email notification that someone has added a new PhD-related question to Quora. Sometimes I read the question and notice that I’ve often wondered the same, and other times I read it and realize I never even thought to ask the question.

What are the benefits of getting a PhD?

I’d be seriously misguided if I hadn’t thought a lot about this. The most obvious answer is that in the course of earning a PhD, you gain research skills that can be applied in your career after grad school. Many people still think of a PhD as training for a life in academia — and while achieving a PhD is the only route towards becoming a university professor and researcher, becoming a professor and researcher is not the only productive use of a PhD.

The range of responses to this question on Quora demonstrates that there are lots of non-obvious benefits of earning a PhD. Fahad Ali points out that working towards a PhD can be intellectually satisfying, can help build confidence, and “[y]ou’ll learn how to be tough (mentally tough that is) from all the grilling, criticizing, and second guessing you will have to endure…” Abhinav Varshney added that you will cultivate patience and the habit of observing things closely, since good research and breakthroughs are built on many small things.

What are some skills that every Ph.D student should have?

So many suggestions! A few on this thread that especially resonate with me:

  • Independence
  • Critical thinking
  • Attention to detail
  • Thoroughness
  • Humility
  • Ability to collaborate

Some of these may come naturally, but in my experience, even if they don’t, they can be cultivated.

How can a graduate student make the best out of his/her PhD experience?

My own advice stems from something I often struggle with: just be present. Try not to think of a PhD as a means to an end, but instead as an experience in which much of the benefit is in the process itself. Immerse yourself in your field, your work, and building relationships with the people around you.

Scott Fahlman, a Quora responder, similarly advocates for focusing on the aspects of a PhD experience — like the ability to delve into a topic you’ve chosen — and considering ways to maximize those unique aspects. He notes that working with a PhD advisor is an opportunity to learn from someone at the top of their field, and that other graduate students present opportunities for learning from brilliant and interesting peers.

If you’re ambitious (and most of us are), a lot of the stress you feel will be self-inflicted. So try to modulate your ambitions and not try to solve the most cosmic problems in the 3 or so years available for PhD research. There is an after-life for most students, so try to save something to work on during the rest of your career. (Do as I say, not as I did.) -Scott Fahlman

Similar advice reminds people that to receive a PhD, you don’t need to be the smartest… PhDs are earned through hard work. But on the flip side, perseveration on a dissertation isn’t the path to success: “The best type of dissertation is a completed dissertation.” Joseph Perazzo sums a lot of the advice up well: “Making the best out of the PhD experience, in my opinion, requires stepping out of one’s comfort zone. You can’t be afraid to meet people, ask questions, and learn learn learn!”

I’ll leave off with one of my favorite question-and-answer combos:

How did Ph.D students become so good at writing? 

  • “Uh, they didn’t. From talking with many of my academic colleagues, it’s clear that the large majority of graduate students do not become good at writing even when they graduate and defend their PhD.” -Ben Zhao
  • “Your question is worded (grammatically) to imply that they are good at writing. Which I disagree with.” -Maxine Power
  • They didn’t… PhDs learn how to research topics. (And, frankly, they often don’t do that well, either.) Their writing often lumbers and lurches along—inelegant and often unfocused.” -Donald Tepper

The assertion that PhD students, by and large, are not very good at writing is a recurring theme in the responses to this question. I love this in part because I know I’m not nearly as good at academic writing as many people I collaborate with. But I also love it because it reminds us that achieving a PhD doesn’t necessarily mean mastering research skills in your field (I consider writing about research to be a research skill). When you earn your PhD, you’ve contributed at least a drop of knowledge to a much larger pool, and you’ve massively improved and honed your research skills. But the PhD is not a magical transition from apprentice to master researcher — all throughout your career, you’ll continue to improve. The PhD is a first step of many.


You can find more curated questions and answers about the PhD experience in an earlier post.

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.

CAN YOU HEAR ME, DEAR STUDENTS?!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.