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.

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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.

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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

The most informative home video

My family has some home videos. Some are on actual cassettes, and others are on our iPhones or in the cloud. They’re mostly short, and like photographs, they’re somewhat staged. In many cases, they show premeditated or sugar-coated shots of our lives.

But MIT researcher Deb Roy has some home videos that break the mould I just described. Roy and his wife set up video cameras to record every room of their house for about 10 hours a day for the first three years of their son’s life. They have more than 200,000 hours of data. Analyzing it is a mammoth and ongoing task, but it has helped answer some highly-debated and longstanding questions about how humans develop language. For example, one paper describes how this data can be used to predict the “birth” of a spoken word.

What factors facilitate word learning?

Not surprisingly, the child produced shorter words before longer words, as well as words that tended to occur in shorter sentences, and words he had heard often before rarer words. To me, these are intuitive features of words that make them easier to learn.

But there were also some less intuitive features that predicted how early the child would produce certain words. These features were more contextual, taking into account the when and where he heard words in the time leading up to his first production.

One feature that predicted a word’s birth was based on how often the boy heard the word in different rooms throughout the house. Some words were spatially distinct–for example, “breakfast” usually occurred in the kitchen, and others were more spatially dispersed, like the word “toy.” Spatial distinctiveness tended to help him learn words faster.

The researchers also measured temporal distinctiveness, or when during the day the word was likely to be heard by the toddler. Again, “breakfast” was temporally distinct, occurring almost exclusively in the morning, while the word “beautiful” was much more dispersed throughout the day. As with spatially distinct words, the researchers found that more temporally distinct words– those that were most often said at a similar time during the day — were learned sooner than those whose uses were spread out throughout a typical day.

Finally, they looked at the contextual distinctiveness of each word. This is basically the variation in the language that the child tended to hear with the word of interest. The word “fish” was contextually distinct, for example, often occurring with other animal words or words related to stories. “Toy,” on the other hand, occurred with a much greater variety of words and topics, so it was less contextually distinct. As with spatial and temporal distinctiveness, contextual distinctiveness made a word easier to learn.

This TED talk blew my mind.

Why does distinctiveness affect word learning?

Children learn language through conversations that are inseparable from the everyday life contexts they occur in. Those contexts are not just incidental features of word learning, but are actually crucial variables affecting how language is learned. This work is a reminder that language use and development is actually about much more than language, just as thinking is something that requires much more than just a brain. We humans are inseparable from our environments, and those environments play a big role in shaping how we think and navigate the wonderfully messy world we live in.

Metaphors in science: How should we talk about genes?

As genetic research results in new insights every day, mass media has continued to discuss genetic information. This is a good thing, and it means that members of the public are developing mental models of genes — their own internal conceptual frameworks for how genes work. These mental models are not always accurate, though. A group of researchers characterized how members of the public actually talk about genes and their relationship to diseases (specifically heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes, and depression).

The group set out with the concern, supported by prior research, that public health messages about the contribution of genes to diseases can increase fatalism. If people believe a gene variant they have definitively causes some disease, they may feel that condition is inevitable and not actually make health-promoting decisions.

As a result, they identified metaphors people use to talk about genetics, analyzed how those metaphors might affect fatalistic beliefs, and suggested more productive alternatives.

They conducted many interviews, and although they never asked specifically about metaphors people think of as associated with genetics, the people they interviewed included many metaphors in their descriptions.

The most common ones included:

Gene as a disease or problem

Many people described genes as an already existing disease that might be dormant. For example, one participant, when asked to describe gene said: “Gene means disease.” Another commented that it’s something you can “have a high chance of catching,” and still another commented that it runs through the bloodstream. The authors consider these comments to reflect metaphors for genes, but I wonder if these participants are not being metaphorical at all — if these comments just reflect misperceptions of genes. Either way, if people are to consider the influence of gene-environment interactions for different diseases, it’s not productive for them to think of a gene as a disease.

Gene as a fire or bomb

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When people talked about genes as a fire or a bomb, they suggested that genes are something already explosive (or exploding). In this case, genes for certain diseases can be activated by an unhealthy environment. For example, one person commented that if someone has a genetic predisposition for a disease, every unhealthy thing they do is “like adding fuel to the fire. It’s like pouring gasoline on the fire.” Another referred to genes as a “ticking time bomb.”

The fire metaphor at least suggests that people have control over environmental influences on genes — they can pour fuel on the fire (and get the disease) or not. But both the fire and bomb metaphors seriously underestimate the complexity of the interactions between genes and the environment, in particular disregarding the fact that environment can have a cumulative effect on health — more than a one-shot case of pouring fuel on a fire or not. A genetic predisposition for a disease is not just a fire waiting to flare up, since the gene will not necessarily cause a person to get the disease.

Genes as a gamble

Some people also talked about their genes as a game of chance like Russian roulette. If a person has a genetic predisposition, participants expressed that whether that person actually gets the disease is a “crapshoot” or a roll of the dice.

Again, there’s something helpful in this metaphor since it doesn’t imply that everyone with a disposition will also get a disease. But by suggesting that whether the disease manifests is random, people underestimate their own ability to influence their outcomes by creating healthy environments. Plus, participants tended to see genetic gambling as similar to literal gambling at a casino, where overall the house always wins.

None of the metaphors that people tended to elicit spontaneously emphasize the complex role of the gene-environment interaction in shaping outcomes for someone with a genetic predisposition for a disease actually gets the disease. The authors propose two similar alternatives to decrease the fatalistic beliefs that people form about genes.

Genes as a dance or a band

For one, people generally think of dancing and bands as positive, which seems to be a good start for engineering a metaphor that will not make people feel that a predisposition for a disease means that a person will necessarily end up with the disease.

In both the dance and the band, there are at least two components (gene and environmental factors) that come together in coordination. Further, over time they become more coordinated, just as environmental effects on genes accumulate over time. Finally, both metaphors emphasize that humans have agency — they can actively shape their health through their behaviors.

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The group pilot tested these metaphors and found a decrease in fatalistic beliefs about genes. People who were exposed to these metaphors tended to feel less like having a disposition meant they would definitely end up with the disease than those participants who hadn’t encountered them. If these metaphors can help people understand that they can influence their health, they’ll hopefully be more likely to make health-promoting decisions (though that’s another assumption that needs to be tested!). Overall, public health messages that are based in evidence — research that reveals how people actually respond to different methods — can make a big help in improving out health.

The Language of Twitter

Technology is well-known (at least in linguist circles) for giving rise to new language. New innovations require new words, but those words are often quickly repurposed from their original parts of speech. For example, we can receive an e-mail (noun), but we can also straight up e-mail (verb) someone, and I think I’ve heard people refer to e-mail (adjective) messages (those are probably people who grew up with the idea of some other kind of messages for a while before they were introduced to the e-mail, though). Similarly, we have text (a group of words), a text (noun – a book, or, more recently, a text (adjective) message), and we can definitely text (verb) people. Instead of creating nouns, adjectives, and verbs for new technology concepts, we often create one word and use it for whatever parts of speech we need.

Twitter language

Social media platforms tend to also have their own niche linguistic habits. Twitter and Twitter users have introduced lots of new terms – for example the verb tweet as a thing humans can do while at a computer (with its accompanying noun — the tweet). Tweet is “productive,” in the linguistic sense that it can be combined with other morphemes (meaningful word parts) to make new words: there are retweets, subtweets, and tweetups.

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2010, seriously!?

Of course there’s also the expansion of the word hashtag (into something people now say verbally preceding pretty much anything they want). In fact, the primary definition of hashtag seems to be the Twitter sense now, with the actual symbol taking on the secondary definition.

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Plus, Twitter’s strict character limit encourages lots of esoteric abbreviations, bringing about lots of new elements of language. Sometimes, scrolling through my Twitter feed I’m reminded of the experience translating sentences from Latin — I’d figure out pieces one at a time, not necessarily in a logical order, and put them together, to hopefully reveal something meaningful.

Lately I’ve noticed a few especially cool linguistic inventions on Twitter that I think result in part from character restrictions, and also because even though most people’s Tweets are public for anyone on the Internet to read, conversations often include people with a lot of common ground. They may not even know each other IRL, but they follow similar people, communicate about similar topics online, and maybe share some background experiences.

First, an important mention: The people I follow on Twitter are not representative of the population of Twitter users. When I compare my Twitter followers to all Twitter users, there are some pretty striking differences. For example, a greater percentage of my followers are between ages 25 and 34 than the Twitter population at large.

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Similarly, my followers are much more interested in a handful of related topics than the whole Twitter population:

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These demographics should provide some context for the linguistic innovations I experience on Twitter.

#NotAllMen

First, the nature of hashtags on Twitter has kind of coerced these 3 words into one, as it often appears as #notallmen without caps to distinguish the component words. #Notallmen means what it sounds like. When someone says something negative about men, someone might reply with the reminder that not all men (#notallmen) are sexist (or whatever the original claim was — usually sexist). But I usually see #notallmen take on a more meta meaning, a way of pointing out that replying to some instance of sexism with “not all men” distracts from and avoids the problem (i.e., “Men who disguise their own hurt under #notallmen – into the bin with you”). Here, #notallmen is a noun.

But it can also be an adjective: “In my dream last night I was dating a #NotAllMen boy I went to high school with…”, “walk off your #notallmen instincts dude”, and “I wish guys put all of their angry ‘#NotAllMen!’ energy into just.. actually not being one of those men.” I know there must be verb uses of #notallmen out there, but I’ve yet to stumble upon one…

One other cool thing is that I see #notallmen in lots foreign language tweets — for example “Pero en este punto los hombres se vuelven víctimas y debemos dedicarnos al #notallmen para no herir a aquellos que “aman a las mujeres”.” To my eye, that looks like: “Spanish Spanish Spanish #notallmen Spanish.” (If you’re interested, Twitter translates it as: “But at this point the men become victims and we must dedicate ourselves to the #notallmen to not hurt those who “love women”.”)

#WellActually

#WellActually is #NotAllMen’s cousin. I admittedly don’t always understand how people are using it, but I do often see it to indicate that someone (most often a man) is correcting someone else (most often a woman). Sometimes it’s used to call out a man-splainer (as the man-splainer is likely to say “well, actually…” to a woman), but I’ve also seen it used to refer to correcting people in general: “I got to #wellActually one of the people interviewing me and it felt gooooooooodddddddddd” or “sorry to #wellactually.”

Like many of the other terms I’ve described, #WellActually can take on whatever part of speech its user needs. It’s often a verb (“Got a BALD MAN in my mentions trying to #WellActually me”), but can also be a noun (“Cue the glasses being pushed up and the ‘#WellActually'”) or an adjective (“Alright, #wellactually twitter. I see you never waste any time.” or “#WellActually twitter came really hard at the people trying to revel in the magnitude of this upset, huh?”). Well actually, I’m not completely convinced that #WellActually is describing Twitter in that second example. It might be an instance of using the hashtag for the actual words “well” and “actually,” which are… an interjection and an adverb? Someone can #WellActually me if that’s not right.

I love the content that I find on Twitter, but I can’t help paying attention to the way people package the content — which words they use and how they use them. The more I pay attention, the more I remember that people are clever, and language is one of the many ways they let that cleverness out.

Metaphors for creativity: using our bodies for problem solving

It can be hard to be creative. Yet so many of our endeavors demand creativity. Creating art or writing a screenplay are obvious examples that demand creativity, but so do less obvious activities like creating a lesson plan for a high school history class, creating ads for a political campaign, or coming up with a bedtime story for your kid. What kinds of advice do we give each other for being creative? And does our advice actually help us come up with clever solutions or novel ideas.

To test whether the “on the one hand… on the other hand” metaphor is embodied, participants were asked to come up with novel uses for a university building complex. In round one, they generated as many ideas as possible while holding out their right hand and keeping their left behind their back. In round two, they were asked to come up with additional novel suggestions for this same question. Some participants kept their right hand out and left behind their backs, while others now put the right behind their back and held their left out. This second group of participants embodied the “on the one hand…on the other hand” metaphor, while the first did not.

Accordingly, those who did use both hands came up with more potential solutions overall, as well as more flexible and original ideas (as rated by independent coders) than those who only used one hand. Enacting this common metaphor for creativity (without actually saying or hearing “on one hand… and on the other hand”) actually fostered more and better solutions.

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Project365-Day21 by Farouq Taj. CC BY-NC-ND

They also explored the effects of embodying the metaphorical advice to “think outside the box.” For this experiment, the researchers created a box that was 5 feet by 5 feet so that one person could comfortably sit in it (I wish there was an image of this!). They told participants they were studying the effects of different work environments, and while either sitting inside or outside the box, participants did a common creativity task called a Remote Association Task. For that task, participants receive 3 words (like “measure,” “worm,” and “video”), and have to think of a fourth word that can be combined with the previous three to make real words (in the example case, “tape” –> “tape measure,” “tapeworm,” and “video tape”). People who did this task while sitting outside the box came up with more correct answers than those who did it while sitting inside the box.

Literally thinking outside the box helped people figuratively think outside the box.

From this work, you could take away the lessons to hold both your hands out and make sure you’re sitting outside a big box when trying to do creative work. And maybe those strategies would help, but offering them was not the purpose of this paper. Instead, the authors focus on their contribution to the massive undertaking that is understanding the human mind, especially how we engage in such complicated processes as creativity. They point out that our bodies and minds are linked in ways that affect how we generate knowledge. By doing so, they shine light on one of the phenomena that make humans the endlessly fascinating creatures that we are.

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Like Bright Lights in a Dim World by Rachel Melton. CC BY-NC-ND

Check out the full study to read about follow-up studies, and how different metaphors affect divergent thinking (coming up with many solutions) vs. convergent thinking (using different pieces of knowledge to settle on the one correct answer).

Feature Image: Creative Workspace by MeeshBomb. CC BY

Communicating climate change: Focus on the framing, not just the facts

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How you package the information matters.
Frame image via www.shutterstock.com.

Rose Hendricks, University of California, San Diego

Humans are currently in a war against global warming. Or is it a race against global warming? Or maybe it’s just a problem we have to deal with? The Conversation

If you already consider climate change a pressing issue, you might not think carefully about the way you talk about it – regardless of how you discuss it, you already think of global warming as a problem. But the way we talk about climate change affects the way people think about it.

For scientific evidence to shape people’s actions – both personal behaviors like recycling and choices on policies to vote for – it’s crucial that science be communicated to the public effectively. Social scientists have been increasingly studying the science of science communication, to better understand what does and does not work for discussing different scientific topics. It turns out the language you use and how you frame the discussion can make a big difference.

The paradox of science communication

“Never have human societies known so much about mitigating the dangers they faced but agreed so little about what they collectively know,” writes Yale law professor Dan Kahan, a leading researcher in the science of science communication.

Kahan’s work shows that just because someone has scientific knowledge, he or she won’t necessarily hold science-supported beliefs about controversial topics like global warming, private gun possession or fracking.

Instead, beliefs are shaped by the social groups people consider themselves to be a part of. We’re all simultaneously members of many social groups – based, for example, on political or religious affiliation, occupation or sexuality. If people are confronted with scientific evidence that seems to attack their group’s values, they’re likely to become defensive. They may consider the evidence they’ve encountered to be flawed, and strengthen their conviction in their prior beliefs.

Unfortunately, scientific evidence does sometimes contradict some groups’ values. For example, some religious people trust a strict reading of the Bible: God said there would be four seasons, and hot and cold, so they don’t worry about the patterns in climate that alarm scientists. In cases like this one, how can communicators get their message across?

A growing body of research suggests that instead of bombarding people with piles of evidence, science communicators can focus more on how they present it. The problem isn’t that people haven’t been given enough facts. It’s that they haven’t been given facts in the right ways. Researchers often refer to this packaging as framing. Just as picture frames enhance and draw attention to parts of an image inside, linguistic frames can do the same with ideas.

One framing technique Kahan encourages is disentangling facts from people’s identities. Biologist Andrew Thaler describes one way of doing so in a post called “When I talk about climate change, I don’t talk about science.” Instead, he talks about things that are important to his audiences, such as fishing, flooding, farming, faith and the future. These issues that matter to the people with whom he’s communicating become an entry into discussing global warming. Now they can see scientific evidence as important to their social group identity, not contradictory to it.

Let me rephrase that

Metaphors also provide frames for talking about climate change. Recent work by psychologists Stephen Flusberg, Paul Thibodeau and Teenie Matlock suggests that the metaphors we use to describe global warming can influence people’s beliefs and actions.

Ready for combat?
Thomas Hawk, CC BY-NC

The researchers asked 3,000 Americans on an online platform to read a short fictional news article about climate change. The articles were exactly the same, but they used different metaphors: One referred to the “war against” and another to the “race against” climate change. For example, each article included phrases about the U.S. seeking to either “combat” (war) or “go after” (race) excessive energy use.

After reading just one of these passages, participants answered questions about their global warming beliefs, like how serious global warming is and whether they would be willing to engage in more pro-environmental behaviors.

Metaphors mattered. Reading about the “war” against global warming led to greater agreement with scientific evidence showing it is real and human-caused. This group of participants indicated more urgency for reducing emissions, believed global warming poses a greater risk and responded that they were more willing to change their behaviors to reduce their carbon footprint than people who read about the “race” against global warming.

The only difference between the articles that participants read was the metaphors they included. Why would reading about a war rather than a race affect people’s beliefs about climate change in such important ways?

The researchers suggest that when we encounter war metaphors, we are reminded (though not always consciously) of other war-related concepts like death, destruction, opposition and struggle. These concepts affect our emotions and remind us of the negative feelings and consequences of defeat. With those war-related thoughts in mind, we may be motivated to avoid losing. If we have these war thoughts swimming around in our minds when we think about global warming, we’re more likely to believe it’s important to defeat the opponent, which, in this case, is global warming.

There are other analogies that are good at conveying the causes and consequences for global warming. Work by psychologists Kaitlin Raimi, Paul Stern and Alexander Maki suggests it helps to point out how global warming is similar to many medical diseases. For both, risks are often caused or aggravated by human behaviors, the processes are often progressive, they produce symptoms outside the normal range of past experiences, there are uncertainties in the prognosis of future events, treatment often involves trade-offs or side effects, it’s usually most effective to treat the underlying problem instead of just alleviating symptoms and they’re hard to reverse.

People who read the medical disease analogy for climate change were more likely to agree with the science-backed explanations for global warming causes and consequences than those who read a different analogy or no analogy at all.

Golden past or rosy future?

Climate change messages can also be framed by focusing on different time periods. Social psychologists Matthew Baldwin and Joris Lammers asked people to read either a past-focused climate change message (like “Looking back to our nation’s past… there was less traffic on the road”) or a similar future-focused message (“Looking forward to our nation’s future… there is increasing traffic on the road”).

The researchers found that self-identified conservatives, who tend to resist climate change messages more than liberals, agreed that we should change how we interact with the planet more after reading the past-focused passage. Liberals, on the other hand, reported liking the future-focused frame better, but the frames had no influence on their environmental attitudes.

Example of a past-focused image (top) and a future-focused image (bottom) of a reservoir.
Image courtesy of NASA. Used in Baldwin and Lammers, PNAS December 27, 2016 vol. 113 no. 52 14953-14957.

And the frames didn’t have to be words. Conservatives also shifted their beliefs to be more pro-environmental after seeing past-focused images (satellite images that progressed from the past to today) more than after seeing future-focused ones (satellite images that progressed from today into the future). Liberals showed no differences in their attitudes after seeing the two frames.

Many climate change messages focus on the potential future consequences of not addressing climate change now. This research on time-framing suggests that such a forward-looking message may in fact be unproductive for those who already tend to resist the idea.

There’s no one-size-fits-all frame for motivating people to care about climate change. Communicators need to know their audience and anticipate their reactions to different messages. When in doubt, though, these studies suggest science communicators might want to bring out the big guns and encourage people to fire away in this war on climate change, while reminding them how wonderful the Earth used to be before our universal opponent began attacking full force.

Rose Hendricks, Ph.D. Candidate in Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Psychology with Third Graders

One of my sisters teaches third grade, and just before the holiday break I had the opportunity to spend some time with her class. Despite their pre-vacation excitement, they were attentive and interested in learning about psychology and language, especially since their curriculum is Spanish immersion, so they’re used to learning in their second language.

First, they experienced the Stroop effect. As a group, they scanned the array of words, saying the color of the font (not the word). They were pretty quick to recite the colors of the words in the first set.

They were quick to tell me: reading comes naturally to them, so they always want to read the word that’s written. When they’re supposed to pay attention to the color of the word, not the word itself, their brains are trying to do two things at once. They made their own Stroop materials to take home and test their friends and families, and some kids even invented variations on the original materials to see if those variations would have different effects.


For the second half of the class, we focused on metaphors. We talked about metaphors for their teacher (encyclopedia was a favorite), the cafeteria (circus and zoo were popular), and our beds (we all felt cocoon was apt).

Then they all brainstormed metaphors for their own minds, and they came up with great ones:

  • dolphin (energetic and smart)
  • dictionary (“dicshenary”: full of knowledge)
  • Christmas tree (bright, unique, source of joy)
  • bouncy ball (all over the place)
  • mountain (strong and resilient)

I hope they enjoyed thinking about their minds, because I certainly did!

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, let’s put away our fight metaphors

Lately, as I’ve been scrolling through my Twitter newsfeed, I feel a little overwhelmed by the amount of metaphorical fighting going on in my tiny corner of the Internet. Of course the literal fighting is incredibly upsetting, particularly the recent rise in hate crimes permeating the U.S. and garnering media attention, but the figurative fighting is also jarring. If you go to your Facebook, Twitter, or social media feed of your choice, and search for the word fight, I feel pretty confident that you’ll come up with results, and that they won’t be about boxing matches or conflict in the Middle East.

A lot of these fight metaphors arise from positive intentions, encouragements to fight hatred and to fight for progress.

Barackobama.com says that “We’ve always known progress is hard, but that it’s worth fighting for — and now, more than ever, we’ve got to get fired up for the work ahead.”

A piece in the Huffington Post talks about how we can fight the “Trump Effect” (defined as the fear and anxiety that many children feel as a result of Trump’s rhetoric against different groups) in youth sports.

STAT reports on Choosing Scientific Sides in the Fight Against Alzheimer’s: Here it seems that the fight is both between scientists in favor of two competing hypotheses, as well as the general fight against the disease. (Some side speculation: since we talk about the immune system as defending the body and viruses as invading, I suspect that our tendency to talk about fighting diseases — from depression, to cancer, to obesity, and apparently Alzheimer’s — might originate from the immune system mental model, and has now generalized to diseases from which recovery doesn’t involve the immune system).

Many people are calling for recounts of votes in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, based on suspicion that the results may have been interfered with by foreign powers. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has been urged to join the fight in demanding a recount, the Guardian reports.

It gets particularly meta when articles talk about fighting the fighting: George Soros is donating $10 million to combat the recent rise in hate crimes, Time reports.

The phrase fighting fire with fire feels particularly apt right now: there’s too much fighting, so let’s stop the fighting with a different kind of fighting.

These articles are a tiny subset of the many fight-encouraging articles that have cropped up in my news feeds. In fact, they’re just the ones I noticed over breakfast in one day (I eat slowly, but not that slowly). I didn’t even have to go looking for these metaphorical fights.

Are all these fight metaphors influencing our behavior?

It’s hard to know if fight metaphors are empowering people to take more action for good, doing things like standing up for “what’s right” and shutting down acts of hatred. It’s also hard to know if the metaphors are encouraging people to engage in violence and unnecessary confrontation. But there’s been an alarming amount of violence recently, and every instance adds more fire to everyone’s fires — which might make them more likely to drop even more fight metaphors. I accidentally stumbled upon an appropriate Vox article that shares advice for arguing better, acknowledging that Thanksgiving can give rise to arguments, so here’s how you can equip yourself to win them.

It seems to me we have a national case of fighting on the brain.

Of course I am speculating, providing cherry-picked anecdotal evidence from a sample size of one (myself). And of course, confrontation can be necessary, and it can be effective. I’m not advocating for abolishing fight metaphors. They might empower some people, but they also might encourage others to be violent. The context in which they’re used, the frame of mind a person is in, the prior experiences that person has had… these all matter when metaphors shape the way we think.

I hope on this Thanksgiving Day, and as we head into a holiday season, and soon begin a New Year, under leadership of a new U.S. President, that we think twice when using fight metaphors. They’re powerful things, and they should be used responsibly.

A lingustically-inclined cognitive scientist’s take on Arrival

Note: This post doesn’t just contain spoilers. The whole thing is pretty much a spoiler. Read it now only if you have seen the movie, don’t plan to see the movie, or don’t mind knowing the end of the movie. Read it later if none of those previous conditions apply to you. Either way, read it at some point. 

This weekend I saw Arrival. The movie finished around 9:30pm, which is about bedtime for me, but I was wired. A few times during the movie, I squeezed my husband’s hand. He passed over his sweatshirt for me to rest on my lap, assuming the squeezes were my way of telling him I was cold (they often are). I clarified, I’m just excited.

Why was I so excited? Because Arrival nailed some of the intellectual issues that make me tick.

Wikipedia has a solid overview of the plot, so mine will be brief. In the movie, aliens land in 12 different locations across the Earth. One of those locations is in the U.S., and Louise, a linguistics professor, is called to help make sense of their language so humans can communicate with the aliens (referred to as heptapods) and ask them why they’re here.

Lessons Learned

Early on, the colonel asks Louise why she has such a lengthy list of terms she needs to learn to communicate with the heptapods. The military only wants the answer to the question: “What is your purpose here?” Louise briefly points out the layers of complexities underlying such a seemingly simple question. First, it’s a question, so you have to make sure the heptapods know what a question is; that it’s a request for information. Then there’s the pronoun your, which is ambiguous in English in a way it’s not in other human languages. Your can refer to Joe alien or it can refer to the aliens collectively, an important specification that needs to be clear to effectively ask the heptapods why they’re here. Understanding the word purpose assumes an agreed-upon sense of intentionality. These are just a few of the reasons that Louise needs to be able to communicate human and Louise and many other seemingly-unrelated words before diving into the meaty why are you here? question. Lesson #1: Communication is not simple.

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Eventually, Louise gets to the point where she can ask the heptapods why they’re on Earth. They write their response, which Louise translates as Offer weapon. Other teams of linguists at the other 11 locations with heptapod shells have also gotten to a similar point in their communication with the heptapods and translate the responses similarly: Use weapon. Not surprisingly, people freak out. China has declared that they’ll open fire on the shell if they don’t leave within 24 hours. Pakistan and Sudan follow suit. Nations start disconnecting from each other. Everyone is afraid that the heptapods are going to attack, and the U.S. military starts evacuating from the site.

Louise is not so ready to accept this message as a warning of attack. Maybe the weapon the heptapods were talking about what English speakers refer to as a tool (which is a really ambiguous term, accounting for so many different objects. Of course a screwdriver is a tool, a knife is a tool, a pen is a tool. But so are cars and iPhones and… language). Lesson #2: Translating is messy (this version of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air translated many times over hillariously reminds us of this fact).

Despite the military’s disapproval, Louise takes it upon herself to clarify the heptapods’ message. Why are they here? They are here to help humanity because in 3,000 years they will need humans’ help. Louise asks how they can possibly know that they’ll need our help in 3,000 years. They know because they have an ability to perceive time in a way we don’t: they can see the future. And, they point out to Louise, so can she. It is at this point that we realize that the visions Louise has been having throughout the movie, which we assumed to have been flashbacks to her daughter’s life and death from a rare form of cancer, are actually flash-forwards. As Louise has learned the heptapods’ language, she has acquired the ability to perceive time as they do.

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The heptapods’ written language is not linear, as every known human language is. It’s written simultaneously from left to right and right to left. It’s cyclical. They have come to help humanity by offering up an incredibly valuable tool — their language. Once someone knows their language, they will be able to perceive time as the heptapods do, in a new way. And that is a gift. Lesson #3: Language is a gift. Lesson #3a: It can shape the way you see the world.

As I left the movie, I looked around at the other people in the theater and tried to imagine the conversations they’d have on the way home. I imagined someone commenting, Imagine if the language you spoke and the way you wrote actually affected the way you perceive time? That would be wild.

You know what would be even more wild? If people spent all day every day thinking about and working on that very topic. If they earned government and university funding, conducted academic research experiments, talked and wrote incessantly about it, and at the end of it, they were granted a PhD. So wild. That’s my life, so I guess I’m wild — there’s a first time for everything.

Language Shapes Thought about Time

As far as we know, there are no human speakers of any language who can see the future as a result of their language’s way of talking about time. But there are other cool connections between the way different groups of people talk about time and the way we think about it. Across many languages, we tend to use features of space to talk about time, and cognitive science research shows that we tend to invoke space when we think about time as well.

In English, for example, we often talk about looking forward to the future and putting the past behind us. Beyond just a way of talking, we’re faster to think about the future when doing so involves some kind of forward component (like moving our arms or bodies forward) and faster to think about the past when it involves backward movement. Speakers of the Aymara language actually reverse this convention: since they know what happened in the past, it’s in front of them, in visible space, while the future, unknown, is behind. Their spontaneous gestures reveal that they also think about the past as ahead and future as behind. And Mandarin Chinese speakers can talk about time using vertical space. The same words that mean above and below can be combined with temporal words like month to produce the phrases last month and next month. Compared to English speakers, who don’t talk about time using vertical metaphors, Mandarin speakers have more robust vertical mental timelines.

Linguistic metaphors matter for the way speakers of a language think about time, but so does their writing direction. As left-to-right readers and writers, English speakers think of time as left-to-right. Right-to-left readers and writers, like speakers of Hebrew and Arabic, think of time as flowing from right-to-left. And Mandarin speakers with more experience with top-to-bottom text think of time even more vertically than those who speak the same language but don’t read vertically (whether Mandarin is written vertically varies from one location to another). When you read and write, you are continually experiencing the flow of time in one direction. Your eyes and hand move in a consistent direction as time unfolds, which seems to instill a consistent mental timeline. (See the list of resources at the bottom of this post for more info on all of these studies and more)

Back to Arrival

The movie was a 5/5 in my book because it was captivating. It was a 5/5 because a linguist saved the day, and because the military recognized that they needed someone with a PhD in linguistics for this crucial job. And, to boot, the linguist was a female, which is not at all far-fetched in the real world, but is not to be taken for granted in a Hollywood portrayal of an academic. As a bonus, Arrival spread the concept of my research much farther than my dissertation will, and it proved — even to me — that there are so many reasons for us to continue methodically investigating the world’s languages and their impact on cognition. Because you just never know when the heptapods will arrive.

 

You can also find this post published on moviepilot.com.

More Information

Bergen, B., & Chan Lau, T. (2012). Writing direction affects how people map space onto time. Frontiers in Cultural Psychology, 3(109).

Boroditsky, L., Fuhrman, O., & McCormick, K. (2010). Do English and Mandarin speakers think about time differently? Cognition, 118(1), 123–129. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.010

Casasanto, D. (2008). Who’s afraid of the big bad Whorf? Crosslinguistic differences in temporal language and thought. Language Learning, 58(s1), 63–79.

Casasanto, D., & Jasmin, K. (2012). The hands of time: Temporal gestures in English speakers. Retrieved from http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/cog.2012.23.issue-4/cog-2012-0020/cog-2012-0020.xml

Fuhrman, O., & Boroditsky, L. (2010). Cross-Cultural Differences in Mental Representations of Time: Evidence From an Implicit Nonlinguistic Task. Cognitive Science, 34(8), 1430–1451. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1551-6709.2010.01105.x

Fuhrman, O., McCormick, K., Chen, E., Jiang, H., Shu, D., Mao, S., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). How Linguistic and Cultural Forces Shape Conceptions of Time: English and Mandarin Time in 3D. Cognitive Science, 35(7), 1305–1328. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1551-6709.2011.01193.x

Miles, L. K., Tan, L., Noble, G. D., Lumsden, J., & Macrae, C. N. (2011). Can a mind have two time lines? Exploring space–time mapping in Mandarin and English speakers. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18(3), 598–604. http://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-011-0068-y

Núñez, R. E., & Sweetser, E. (2006). With the future behind them: Convergent evidence from Aymara language and gesture in the crosslinguistic comparison of spatial construals of time. Cognitive Science, 30(3), 401–450.

Ouellet, M., Santiago, J., Israeli, Z., & Gabay, S. (2010). Is the future the right time? Experimental Psychology, 57(4), 307-314.