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.

 

Beef or Cow, Pig or Pork? Why it matters

This weekend, I went to Wurstfest, a celebration of German music, crafts, and heritage, but mostly of beer and meat. I’m not a vegetarian, but I don’t eat too much meat, mostly because I don’t care for it too much and know that too much of it isn’t good for me. Until recently, I stuck eating things with two legs (chicken, turkey) or no legs (fish), but not four legs (no cow or pig). I’d tell people the leg rule when they wanted to know what I do and don’t eat, and had thought of it as an efficient way of communicating. But maybe it was more than that.

A new paper in the journal Appetite (the paper is behind a paywall, but this good summary is not) shows that our behaviors around meat shape the way we think of it, and in turn shape our willingness to eat it.

  1. Presentation: When meat resembles the animal it originated as (or is shown with an image of the animal it originated as), we view it with more empathy than if it bears less resemblance. The researchers found this with chicken in various stages of processing, a pork roast with its head either on or off, and an advertisement for lamb chops that was either accompanied by an image of a living lamb or not.

    Screen Shot 2016-11-06 at 8.10.29 AM.png

    Screen Shot 2016-11-06 at 6.47.31 AM.png
    More Empathy                                                                          Less Empathy

    Screen Shot 2016-11-06 at 6.47.40 AM.png

  2. Language about the process of slaughtering animals. Participants read about the mass slaughtering of cows, which was presented either with the word slaughtered, killed, or harvested. Reading about slaughtered and killed cows led people to have more empathy toward the animals than the tamer, more distant verb harvested did.
  3. Language about the food itself. Some people read a menu that listed its items under the categories of pork and beef and others read one that referred to these same foods under the categories of pig and cow. People whose options were referred to by the actual animal names showed more empathy and disgust towards the foods, as well as a decreased willingness to eat meat and a greater willingness to opt for a vegetarian food. Other work has called the practice of using words like pork when we’re really talking about a pig linguistic camouflaging, a way of concealing what something is by using a certain name (not much different from the consequences of euphemism more generally)
    Screen Shot 2016-11-06 at 8.14.24 AM.png

Across all of the studies, the researchers found that the effects were driven how much people dissociated themselves with the foods. In cases where they showed less empathy and disgust and were more willing to eat meat, they had greater mental distance between themselves and the potential foods than cases where they were more empathic. In other words, seeing an entire pig carcass with its head on made people feel closer to the animal, which led to feelings of empathy. The beheaded carcass, on the other hand, doesn’t feel so close, so people felt less empathic.

The language studies intrigue me the most, but I’m also considering that it’s not just that certain words encourage us to dissociate and mentally distance ourselves from food more than others driving differences in empathy and willingness to eat meat. Slaughtering and killing, for instance, have only one definition. The definition insinuated, especially in the case of slaughter, that violence was probably involved. Harvesting is not a synonym for these words. You can harvest crops, which means to remove them from their tree or vine as they are intended to be removed. It’s not violent, and few people would call it cruel. It’s also not a common way of talking about killing animals (my Google Ngram search confirmed this intuition).

Screen Shot 2016-11-06 at 7.56.36 AM.png

The participants who encountered the phrase harvest cows were not only encountering a phrase that actually has meanings beyond the meaning in context (as opposed to the alternative conditions), but they were also encountering a less common one, which can be a partial explanation for why their responses looked different than responses from the other conditions.

The menu that labeled items as either pig/cow or pork/beef is similar. English convention is that foods and living animals are referred to by different names. When convention is broken, people will pause a little longer to consider what they’re reading. While the findings that people responded differently to these two menu conditions (and to slaughter/kill vs. harvest) are numerically true, we should also consider that familiarity with different words and practices will also shape our thoughts and behaviors.

One neat thing I discovered is that there are languages that don’t use different terms for the living animals and food animals, like German. Does the habitual use of using food-only animal terms like beef actually encourage us to systematically think of meat differently than the habitual use of animal terms for food and living creatures? Based on the amount of meat I saw at Wurstfest this weekend, I’d guess no, but it’s still a possibility.

Words matter in the Presidential Debate

If there’s one thing this Presidential race and debate have reminded me of, it’s that everything is subjective. A few thoughts on the content of the first 2016 Presidential debate from a linguistically-inclined cognitive scientist:

  • America is a piggy bank

    You look at what China is doing to our country in terms of making our product. They are devaluing their currency and there’s nobody in our government to fight them and we have a very good fight and we have a winning fight because they are using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China and many other countries are doing the same thing. -Donald Trump

    If the US is truly a piggy bank, then China may have to smash us to pieces to get their money out. We should watch out.

  • Trump and Clinton argue over Trump’s statement that: You [Clinton] have regulations on top of regulations and new companies cannot form and old companies are going out of business and you want to increase the regulations and make them even worse.

    Clinton: I kind of assumed there would be a lot of these charges and claims and so –Trump: Facts.

    What you call a thing matters. Both candidates agree on that.

  • There’s been some innovative language use from both Clinton and Trump.

    Clinton defines her phrase “Trumped up trickle down”:

    And the kind of plan that Donald has put forth would be trickle down economics. It would be the most extreme version, the biggest tax cuts for the top percents of the people in this country that we’ve ever had. I call it trumped up trickle down because that’s exactly what it would be.

    Trump’s new word, bragadocious, needs no formal definition:

    I have a great company and I have tremendous income. I say that not in a bragadocious way but it’s time that this country has somebody running the country who has an idea about money.

  • Oh! Hillary just wrote my conclusion for me: “Words matter, my friends, and if you are running to be President or you are President of the United States, words can have tremendous consequences.”

CogSci 2016 Day 2 Personal Highlights

Cool stuff is happening at CogSci 2016 (for some evidence, see yesterday’s highlights; for more evidence, keep reading). Here are some of the things I thought were especially awesome during the second day of the conference:

  • Temporal horizons and decision-making: A big-data approach (Robert Thorstad, Phillip Wolff): We all think about the future, but for some of us, that future tends to be a few hours or days from now, and for others it’s more like months or years. These are our temporal horizons, and someone with a farther temporal horizon thinks (and talks) more about distant future events than someone with a closer temporal horizon. These researchers used over 8 million tweets to find differences in people’s temporal horizons across different states. They found that people in some states tweet more about near future events than in others – that temporal horizons vary from state to state (shown below, right panel). They then asked, if you see farther into the future (metaphorically), do you engage in more future-oriented behaviors (like saving money – either at the individual or state level; or doing fewer risky things, like smoking or driving without a seatbelt)? Indeed, the the farther the temporal horizon revealed through people in a given a state’s tweets, the more future-oriented behavior the state demonstrated on the whole (below, left panel).
    Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 9.28.54 AM
    Then, recruited some participants for a lab experiment. The researchers then compared the temporal horizons expressed in people’s tweets with their behavior in a lab task, asking whether those who wrote about events farther in the future displayed a greater willingness to delay gratification – for example, waiting a period of time for a monetary quantity if the future quantity will be greater than taking the money today. They also compared the language in people’s tweets with their risk taking behavior in an online game. They found that the language people generated on Twitter predicted both their willingness to delay gratification (more references to the more distant future were associated with more patience for rewards) and their risk-taking behaviors in the lab (more references to the more distant future were associated with less risk taking). While the findings aren’t earth shattering – if you think and talk more about the future, you delay gratification more and take fewer risks – this big data approach using tweets, census information, and lab tasks opens up possibilities for findings that could not have arisen from any of these in isolation.
  • Extended metaphors are very persuasive (Paul Thibodeau, Peace Iyiewuare, Matias Berretta): Anecdotally, when I read an extended metaphor – especially one that an author carries throughout a paragraph, pointing out the various features that the literal concept and metaphorical idea have in common – persuades me. But this group quantitatively showed the added strength that an extended metaphor has over a reduced (or simple, one-time) or inconsistent metaphor. For example, a baseline metaphor that they used is crime is a beast (vs. crime is a virus). People are given two choices for dealing with the crime: they can increase punitive enforcement solutions (beast-consistent) or get to the root of the issue and heal the town (virus-consistent). In this baseline case, people tend to reason in metaphor consistent ways. When the metaphor is extended into the options, though (for example adding a metaphor-consistent verb like treat or enforce to the choices), the framing has an even stronger effect. When there are still metaphor-consistent responses but the verbs are now reversed – so that the virus-consistent verb (treat) is with the beast-consistent solution (be harsher on enforcement), the metaphor framing goes away. Really cool way to test the intuition that extended metaphors can be really powerful in a controlled lab setting.
  • And, I have to admit, I had a lot of fun sharing my own work and discussing it with people who stopped by my poster – Emotional implications of metaphor: Consequences of metaphor framing for mindsets about hardship [for an abridged, more visual version, with added content – see the poster]. When people face hardships like cancer or depression, we often talk about them in terms of a metaphorical battle – fighting the disease, staying strong. Particularly in the domain of cancer, there’s pushback against that dominant metaphor: does it imply that if someone doesn’t get better, they’re not a good enough fighter? Should they pursue life-prolonging treatments no matter the cost to quality of life? We found that people who read about someone’s cancer or depression in terms of a battle felt that he’d feel more guilty if he didn’t recover than those who read about it as a journey (other than the metaphor, they read the exact same information). Those who read about the journey, on the other hand, felt he’d have a better chance of making peace with his situation than those who read about the battle. When people had a chance to write more about the person’s experience, they tended to perpetuate the metaphor they had read: repeating the same words they had encountered but also expanding on them, using metaphor consistent words that hadn’t been present in the original passage. These findings show some examples of the way that metaphor can affect our emotional inferences and show us how that metaphorical language is perpetuated and expanded as people continue to communicate.
  • But the real treat of the conference was hearing Dedre Gentner’s Rumelhart Prize talk: Why we’re so smart: Analogical processing and relational representation. In the talk, Dedre offered snippets of work that she and her collaborators have been working on over the course of her productive career to better understand relational learning. Relational learning is anything involving relations – so something as simple as Mary gave Fido to John or more complex like how global warming works. Her overarching message was that relational learning and reasoning are central in higher-order cognition, but it’s not easy to acquire relational insights. In order to achieve relational learning, people must engage in a structure-mapping process, connecting like features of the two concepts. For example, when learning about electrical circuits, students might use an analogy to water flowing pipes, and would then map the similarities – the water is like the electricity, for example – to understand the relation. My favorite portion of the talk was about the relationship that language and structure-mapping have with each other: language (especially relational language) can support the structure-mapping process, which can in turn support language. The title of her talk promised we would learn about why humans are so smart, and she delivered on that promise with the claim that “Our exceptional cognitive powers stem from combining analogical ability with language.” Many studies of the human mind and behavior highlight the surprising ways that our brains fail, so it was fun to hear and think instead about the important ways that our brains don’t fail; instead, to hear about “why we’re so smart.”
  • And finally, the talk I wish I had seen because the paper is great: Reading shapes the mental timeline but not the mental number line (Benjamin Pitt, Daniel Casasanto). By having people read backwards (mirror-reading) and normally, they found that while the mental timeline was disrupted: people who read from right to left instead of the normal left to right showed an attenuated left-right mental timeline compared to those who read normally from left to right. This part replicates prior work, and they built on it by comparing the effects of these same reading conditions on people’s mental number lines. This time they found that backwards reading did not influence the mental number line in the way it had decreased people’s tendency to think of time as flowing from left to right, suggesting that while reading direction plays a role in our development of mental timelines that flow from left to right, it does not have the same influence on our mental number lines; these must instead arise from other sources.

One more day to absorb and share exciting research in cognitive science – more highlights to be posted soon!