From my journal, November 2015, my third year in grad school:
That gray silhouette is my mom. I call her most days, but sometimes we text instead. We probably spend half our time talking about daily life — yoga, work, what we’re cooking for dinner — and the other half of our time talking about our thoughts. My thoughts are often future-oriented. For example, I talk about trips that are scheduled for 6 months out as if they’re tomorrow because the future just always feels so imminent. I also talk a lot about my professional future, even though I’m not even sure what my professional goals are. I’m constantly asking myself (internally and aloud), what I can do to secure that all-fulfilling (and elusive) job that’ll allow me to positively impact the world, stay challenged, and help pay the bills for a comfortable home in a stimulating city.
My mom listens so much (thanks, Mom!). She validates my ideas, suggests other things to consider, and maybe most importantly, reminds me that the present is pretty great too. Goals are crucial, and we attain them by having our “eye on the prize.” But luckily we have two eyes. Our biological eyes may not be able to focus on two different things, but our metaphorical ones can. We can keep one eye on the prize while focusing the other on the present. When I do that, I remember that this current stage of my life — 4th year of my PhD, exploring different ways that metaphor shapes thought, in a mind-blowing Cognitive Science department in America’s Finest City — is pretty darn amazing.
For a while, this was the prize that I kept my eye on. When I was an undergrad at Vassar, as I started to learn more about language and cognitive science and more about research, I set my eye on graduate school, and soon after set my eye on THIS graduate school. I wanted to be accepted so much that I cried. Then I was accepted. I came to UCSD and started grad school. In typical human fashion, as the former prize became the present, I looked forward again to the next prize. Even though that next prize is still foggy in my mind, I know there must be a prize there, and I know I want to position myself as best as possible to attain it. So one eye will stay there. But as for the other…
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?
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.
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.
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.
Climate change (is it happening? how problematic is it? and are humans responsible?) is a partisan issue. Work by Dan Kahan (which I’ve written about before) shows that conservatives are more likely than liberals to believe that climate change is not a result of human activity and that if unchanged, it will not be as destructive as many people claim. Researchers Matthew Baldwin & Joris Lammers explore the possibility that partisan differences in beliefs about climate change might result from differences in the way conservatives and liberals tend to think about time (their temporal focus).
Their starting point was that previous research has shown that conservatives focus more on the past than liberals do. Then they tested two competing frames: one was future-focused (“Looking forward to our nation’s future… there is increasing traffic on the road”) and the other was past-focused (“Looking back to our nation’s past… there was less traffic on the road”). Each participant read just one of these, and then reported their attitudes about climate change and the environment. They found that conservatives reported liking the past-focused message better than the future-focused one and also reported higher environmental attitudes after the past- compared to the future-focused frame.
They replicated these findings in additional experiments with variations. For example, in one test, instead of using linguistic frames to draw attention to either the past or the future, they used satellite images, either showing a progression from the past to today or a forecasted progression from today to the future. Again, conservatives reported more proenvironmental attitudes after viewing past-focused images than future-focused ones.
Next they investigated the temporal focus that real environmental charities tend to use. Not surprisingly, they found that the charities’ messages disproportionately express future consequences, with less focus on the past. Following up on this, they presented participants with money that they could divide among two (fake) charities (one whose message was strongly past- and one whose message was strongly future-focused), or they could keep some or all of it. They saw each charity’s logo and mission statement (the past-focused one stated: “Restoring the planet to its original state” and the future one: “Creating a new Earth for the future”).
Conservatives donated more to the past- than the future-oriented charity. Liberals did the opposite. Further, looking at just the past-oriented charity, conservatives donated more than liberals did. Looking just at the future-oriented one, the opposite pattern emerges. This is a very beautiful interaction (plus the researchers did a few other experiments with slightly varied methods and a meta-analysis, all of which add some weight to these findings).
Considering the finding that climate change communications rely heavily on future-focused appeals, these findings should really make us pause. Is it possible that climate change issues themselves may not actually be what divides conservatives and liberals so much, but instead the way they’re communicated might be driving much of the disagreement between them? My intuition is that framing is not entirely to blame for conservatives’ and liberals’ divergent beliefs about climate change, but this work shows that it may be a big part of the story. It certainly won’t hurt for communicators to start diversifying our temporal frames for discussing climate change.
I met Emi Karydes as she was beginning her last year as an undergrad at UCSD. I knew she wanted to be involved in linguistic research, and although my work is really more about cognition, I convinced her that language was my first love and is at the center of my cognitive science research, and Emi became a research assistant. She taught me cool things about American Sign Language, made me laugh, and was tremendously helpful with whatever project I threw at her. A couple months after graduation, Emi reflects on her relationship with language – past, present, and future:
I started my freshman year at UCSD with an interest in everything, but no idea what I wanted to focus on. I had narrowed down my options to “something in the Arts/Humanities.” Then I took LING7, the Linguistics of American Sign Language, and I fell in love. (I am still a bit upset that it took me so long to learn about linguistics, but that is an issue for another day.) I don’t know how I feel about the idea of predestination or fate, but it certainly feels like I was always meant to be a linguist. The study of language touches on so many different aspects of life, from communication, to culture, to technology, to art, just to name a few, that it was the perfect major for someone who wanted to study everything.
Language is something that most people are fortunate enough to take for granted, so when you take a step back and analyze how and why language works it can be mind-boggling. I remember sitting in Phonology freaking out about the fact that as we are talking about the different sounds on the IPA chart, we’re producing them. It is impossible to study linguistics without using language, which I will admit has led me to start speaking and just not stop because I get distracted by how my vocal tract produces the different phonemes. Lots of fun for the people stuck listening to me listening to myself, I’m sure. But my point is that there are so many amazing things happening in your brain and your body allowing you to communicate almost effortlessly, and we aren’t even consciously aware of it most of the time. Language is as close to magic as I’ve been able to find concrete proof for, and I love it.
“So, what exactly are you planning to DO with a linguistics major?” Honestly, whatever you want. Don’t let this question scare you away from a Linguistics major. Since language is so engrained in our everyday lives, linguistics can be applied to almost anything. Scratching the surface, there is speech pathology, or computational linguistics, or language construction, or gathering data on a language that is nearing extinction, or research into any of a number of unanswered questions. I graduated this year with a degree in General Linguistics, and am taking a year off to relocate from San Diego to Portland, but I am really looking forward to applying to grad schools and furthering my study of linguistics. I genuinely feel that what I’ve learned these last four years has helped me grow as a person, expanding my personal perspective and giving me a new method by which to think about the world as a community. So if you are going into this year with no idea what to study, try linguistics. It might just change your life.
By and large, we think of ourselves as one person. But below this conscious self conceptualization, we also tend to think of ourselves as being composed of multiple selves. Just a few of my many selves include slow-but-steady runner, ex-harpist, quasi-fluent French speaker, and first born. As I write this, I’m all of those, but a better description of my current state is probably amateur blogger. Traits aside, I’m also present-me. I’m not quite the same person future-me, who I count on to get out of bed tomorrow morning despite the darkness, or even-more-future-me, who will be eligible to withdraw the interest accrued from my Roth IRA at age 59 and a half.
The latter dimension of selves – the ones that inhabit the future – is a fundamental aspect of one of the projects I’m working on right now (present-me is chipping away in hopes that a future-me will learn something valuable). After reading and thinking extensively about how patterns in language might moderate the similarity we perceive between our current and future selves, I found this awesome Atlantic article from 2008: First Person Plural. The article seamlessly pulls together wisdom from diverse lines of research in order to show us why we should care about our multiple selves.
It starts by talking about happiness. Empirical studies of what makes people happy often turn up paradoxes. For example, whether people are happier while working or while on vacation seems to be a no-brainer. But when they actually record their happiness at regular intervals during a given day, it turns out that their moods are better while at work. One difficulty in addressing the question what makes a person happy is articulating what happiness is and how it can be operationalized, but another, less apparent difficulty is defining what exactly is meant by the person. The same action or circumstance might have very different effects on the current person and some future person. If I’m in the market for a new laptop, choosing a less expensive model might bum me out on the day that I’m buying it, but it might make me really happy the next day when I have enough money left over for a printer. Or… saving money on the laptop might make me feel great in the moment that I’m saving, but disappointed in the future when I realize its glacial operating speed. We’re tricky.
The author promotes a view that although our brains do give rise to a sense of self that persists over time, we also have different selves continuously shifting in prominence. Especially when we look farther into the future, our future selves appear progressively less similar to our present selves. fMRI research by Ersner-Hershfield and colleagues has shown that similar brain areas active when we think about other people and when we think about our future selves. There is more overlap between these activity patterns than there is when we think about ourselves today and ourselves in the future, lending support to the idea that we really do perceive of our future selves as other selves.
Even if we don’t necessarily consciously think of our future selves as someone else, we all do seem to know that sometimes we have to do things now in order to restrict the influence our future selves will have over something. A college roommate of mine used to set three alarms for the morning, and made sure that one was all the way across the room – she knew that the only way to assure that her future self got out of bed and made it to class was if she’d need to physically get up to turn off an alarm. Some people disable their social media sites for a pre-specified amount of time while working under a deadline so that even if they try to procrastinate through Facebook, the site just won’t load. Even if we believe we have free will, we don’t necessarily believe that the person we are at this very moment will have free will over the person we are at some future time.
This idea of multiple selves can help explain the paradox of having children. Most people report that their children are a huge source of their happiness. But studies have shown that people are actually less happy while spending time with their kids than they are doing many other activities, like eating or praying. Surveys also show that people’s marital satisfaction decreases once they have kids and increases once those kids leave the house. The author claims that claims that kids make people happy and the reality that many people report less happiness when taking care of kids aren’t incompatible. Instead, the person who loves having kids can just be considered a different person than the one who dislikes actually spending time with them. (Of course, I don’t have kids, so I’m taking other people’s word for all of this).
In general, we don’t look kindly on people whose short-term selves alone control their behavior. We feel that present self should make decisions that benefit future self, such as eating well and saving money. But disregarding the short term selves in favor of benefitting the long term selves can also be dangerous. It can result in missing out on everyday experiences that can enhance life in favor of future ones (that you may never even profit from). The adage “everything in moderation” applies to the power we allocate to our many selves. Each should get a voice in our decisions, but sometimes certain voices should also trump others.
Keith Chen has proposed that the language we speak can affect our future-oriented behaviors. Some languages, like English, require that speakers grammatically mark future events, thus distinguishing them from present events. For example, we would have to say, “today it is raining,” and “tomorrow it will rain.” Other languages make the grammatical distinction between present and future either optional or nonexistent. In German, for example, the equivalent of our phrase “tomorrow it will rain” is “Morgen regnet es” (it rains tomorrow). Whether referring to rain in the moment or in the future, Germans need not modify the tense of the verb. Chen describes languages like English as strong-FTR (future-time reference), and languages like German as weak-FTR.
Undoubtedly, languages vary in many ways on how they talk about the future – the distinction strong- versus weak-FTR might be an oversimplification in a way, but distinguishing the two types based on whether grammatically marking the future is necessary makes the binary split possible. After just reading about the two different language types, my intuition was that the concept of the future would be more salient for speakers of languages like English who are forced by their language to mark it grammatically. In this case, we might expect speakers of these languages to demonstrate more future-oriented behaviors. This seems to be the trend in general with language on thought effects – when speakers of a language must attend to a feature of the world to encode it in their language, their behavior often reflects that heightened attention.
However, this isn’t what Chen found. He found that speakers of weak-FTR languages, those whose languages don’t require that they grammatically distinguish the present from the future, save more, retire with more wealth, smoke less, practice safer sex, and are less obese. In other words, it sounds like treating the present and future the same grammatically is connected to better forward-looking behaviors. He found this effect at the level of individual households and on the more macro level of countries’ saving rates as a whole. He was even able to identify 7 countries in which a large population speaks a weak-FTR language and another large portion speaks a strong-FTR language. When comparing families who spoke each type of language (and controlling for potentially every variable possible), he found that those families who spoke the weak-FTR language showed significantly more future-oriented behaviors than those who spoke strong-FTR behaviors.
The fact that the reverse finding (strong-FTR speakers exhibit more future-oriented behaviors) could have easily been explained (as a result of heightened attention to the future) is only a little troubling to me. The thoroughness of Chen’s study, evident in the number of languages, survey measures, and controlled variables adds a lot to its credibility. Because grammatical structures like future marking take many generations to evolve, it’s unlikely that cultures who focus more on saving would have adapted their language to reflect that value. Plus, if they had done that, it would be more likely for them to have added a grammatical distinction between the present and future, as a reflection of the importance they attribute to the future.
But as I was talking it over with a friend, I came up with another thought. Because many features of language do reflect cultural values, is it possible that cultures that strive to be economical, or in other words, to waste nothing, do so both in their language and in their economic practices? For example, Mandarin is a weak-FTR language. I know it also does not contain articles and has a much more straightforward counting system than English does. To me, these features could all be described as “economical.” Might such language features correlate with savings? Maybe it could even account for why speakers of those languages are less obese and smoke less – excess food and cigarettes are seen as just that – excesses that detract from economical practices. I’m skeptical that this could be an explaining factor also because Chen found that almost no other language features could predict the future-oriented effects as well as FTR, but I suppose it’s possible that FTR is one of the most consistent and reliable measures of whether a language tends to be economical.
If this finding is reflective of a true cognitive difference resulting from a grammatical feature of language, it’s a pretty important one. Just in case, I think I stop using the future tense.
As a final project in a class on theories and methods in cognitive science, we had to give a talk on what we believed to be the future of cog sci, drawing on what we had synthesized during the course and our own specific interests. I’ve started to think of this blog as a time capsule for my thoughts about the field, so I find it fitting to post my presentation (or at least, the spoken part and a few screenshots from the visual). I’ll probably look back on this someday and think, “oh, how much I had yet to learn…” but that will not be such a travesty. Today, having completed only 10 weeks of grad school courses, here’s what I think about the present and future of cog sci:
As I was thinking about the future of cog sci, I started by rephrasing the question to myself. Where’s the field going? What questions and methods will push the field forward? I don’t need to specify that cog sci isn’t a physical thing, so it can’t actually go anywhere, or that, questions and methods don’t have agency and therefore can’t push the abstract field anywhere. The fact that we produce and comprehend phrases like this naturally and possibly even base our perceptualizations on them is one of the many phenomena we’re still working on understanding.
Because we’re all familiar with the cultural convention of blending time and space with a timeline, I’m going to use that as a jumping off point. In order to tackle the question of the future of cog sci, we have to consider the larger context of its historical roots.
Early research was materialistic in that it didn’t differentiate the mind from the brain. Neuroscience contributed the tenet that brain activity equals thought, while computer science gave rise to the conviction that thinking is equivalent to symbolic information processing. As new topics for investigation have emerged, many researchers have abandoned the traditional assumptions. The orderliness “mind as a computer” metaphor just doesn’t mesh with the complexity and messiness of our cognition.
Over time, more and more people have begun to recognize that every brain is situated in a unique body, and every body situated in a dynamic world. Spivey eloquently noted, “it might just be that your mind is bigger than your brain.” This is where we are now: context often reigns supreme. Most researchers accept that people behave differently inside a lab than outside it, and they strive to make their experiments as ecologically valid as possible, or in other words, as similar as they can to the real-world circumstances they want to generalize about.
Gick and Holyoak provide one of many examples of the importance of context, specifically linguistic context, for reasoning. Half of their subjects were given the tumor problem: a patient needs radiation to kill a tumor. A weak ray will not be strong enough to kill the tumor. A strong ray will be too strong, killing much of the healthy surrounding tissue. What should the radiologist do? Few people answered correctly. Other participants received the fortress problem: There’s a fortress at the intersection of many roads. The general wants to capture the fortress, but if all his troops attack from the same road, they run the risk of being blown up by mines. What should he do? This question is much easier: the army should split up and attack from many angles. The answer to the tumor question was the same: the radiologist should send converging weak rays from different directions so that they’ll be strong enough cumulatively to kill the tumor. But the framing of the problem makes a significant difference for how people go about and succeed in solving it.
Language is an undeniably huge part of our culture and day-to-day lives. We communicate so much directly, and possibly even more indirectly. When I say, “can you open the window?” we understand that I am in fact asking, “will you open the window?” The intended unspoken information conveyed is interesting, but what I find even more interesting is all the information we convey linguistically without intending to. When I talk about cognitive science moving forward, I’m blending the concepts of physical movement and time, with the assumption (thanks to my culture and language) that the future is forward. If I tell you that there’s a canyon separating the rich and the poor in America, I might be conveying different information than if I say, “the poor are lagging behind the rich.” A canyon is often an impenetrable divide resulting from natural causes. Lagging behind, on the other hand, suggests a separation because the slower group is incompetent or lazy, but a separation that can change throughout the course of a race. Do these different metaphoric instantiations of a single, abstract concept have consequences for our thoughts and behaviors?
We know that context is important. But context is a really broad term. What context is important for different aspects of cognition? How can contextual alterations shape our thoughts and behaviors? This is, I think, one of the many important directions in which cog sci is heading.