The emergence of a new way to talk about time (in research and in real life)

Events are rescheduled all the time. Many of us live highly planned and structured lives, in which changes to plans are more of the rule than the exception. When changing the time of an event, you might say that a dinner has been pushed back an hour, or that a trip has been moved up. But you probably don’t say that the meeting has been pushed to the right. Unless you’re a member of the US military.

That’s the main finding from research that I completed with Ben Bergen and Tyler Marghetis. Specifically, members of the US military find lateral metaphors (the words “left” and “right”) more acceptable for talking about time than civilians do. Phrases like “Next Wednesday’s meeting was moved two days to the right, to Friday” were more acceptable to military members than to civilians.

You can read more about that research in an earlier post I wrote, but one of the most important parts of that research is the so what? — why we found it useful to work on this topic in the first place. It’s not just that one subgroup of English speakers uses conventions that others don’t. Instead, we find it significant that English speakers generally think about time in terms of lateral space (something that has been shown extensively by other cognitive psychologists), but only a subset of us (military members, apparently) actually talk about it that way. Yet it’s a logical way to talk. It avoids ambiguity inherent in phrases like “Next Wednesday’s meeting was moved forward two days.” (Is this meeting on Monday or Friday? People are divided on this answer).

In this regard, military members might be ahead (to the right?) of the rest of us — they might have conventionalized a system of metaphors that will gradually become more mainstream.

When we first wrote these ideas and presented them to academic audiences, I thought there was a chance we were right — that someday it would be very normal in standard American English for someone to say that “Next Wednesday’s meeting was moved two days to the right, to Friday.” I thought this because my husband is in the military and says things like this to me regularly. Soon he might not be in the military, but might continue to say things like this, particularly at work with civilians. Who might, in turn, start using the lateral metaphors at home with their own families. And so on. It seems possible that these lateral metaphors are in the process of catching on with the larger population of American English speakers.

This seemed like a solid enough idea in theory, but I wasn’t sure I’d put money on it actually happening.

Then I saw this billboard in a metro station.

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www.getleftofboom.com

To be honest, I didn’t know what being “left of boom” meant at first. But when I actually went to the site, I learned that the company behind the ad (authentic8) is selling a secure remote browser called Silo. Their entire advertisement (in billboards and online) is an extension of the metaphor that earlier things are to the left and later things to the right. “Boom” is “an exploit, a data leak, compliance violation, or worse.” Bad cyber security tools “work right of boom. They assess and analyze content after it’s hit your network. By then it’s too late.”

I don’t know the particular target audience for these ads. Maybe many people in companies that might buy Silo have military (or government) work experience. In these cases, it’s likely that those targeted by the ads are at least somewhat familiar with this explicit lateral metaphor for talking about time. But I’d also guess that military- and government-adjacent people are not the only target customers. Authentic8 is counting on potential customers to either be familiar with lateral metaphors or to intuitively understand them.

I have no idea if their advertising strategy is effective. Do people even understand the ads? Or, on the flip side, do they understand them so easily that they don’t even notice the strange metaphor? Will one of my colleagues start talking about moving meetings left and right soon?

I don’t know — so stay tuned!

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How metaphorical is the “blue wave”?

The political “blue wave” is a hot topic right now.

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Trends in Google searches for the term “blue wave” since just after the 2016 US Presidential election.

The idea is that the 2018 midterm elections could result in a large turnover of red (Republican) Congressional seats to blue (Democrat) candidates.

As I’ve gradually been hearing the term more and more (and so has Google, according to my search on Google Trends above), I’ve started to wonder just how metaphorical the blue wave really is.

To clarify, I know it’s not literal (though with climate change, even that seems possible). But to be truly metaphorical, the term needs to be relatively productive. When used in a linguistic sense, productive means that the comparison can be built on in a number of ways that still make sense. For example, metaphors that compare quality or quantity to height are very productive. We can apply this idea metaphorically in a many different ways — we can get our hopes up, prices can dropor products can be top-notch. Terms that are figurative but aren’t productive are more likely to be idioms than metaphors (like barking up the wrong tree).

I wondered if “blue wave” was being used productively, as we’d expect from a truly metaphorical expression, or whether its use was more standard and idiom-like.

A quick search suggests that “blue wave” is certainly productive. Writers aren’t just dropping the term in a canned way for a dose of imagery, but are instead extending the metaphor in creative ways. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Don’t get ahead of yourselves, Democrats. That ‘blue wave’ may not be that high. Here, we have a reference to the wave’s height as an indication of the number of Congress seats we might see turn from Republican to Democrat. Interestingly, though, the author doesn’t stick exclusively to the height comparison, also referring to the wave’s strength and speed as the metaphorical analogues to potential Democrat victories. The “blue wave” is carried throughout the piece, as the author ends on this colorful note (emphasis my own):

Prospects of an impending blue wave have clearly returned and Democratic leaders would be wise to ride the wave rather than attempt to get ahead of it lest it is they who are swamped and washed off the surfboard they hoped would carry them to victory.

  • Will the Democrats Catch a “Blue Wave”? As in the example above, here the blue wave is something that can carry Democrats to success. For me, this evokes the image of a woman in a crisp pantsuit surfing a big, blue Hawaiian wave. Nice.
  • 7 Ways to Power the “Blue Wave.” In this headline, the wave’s power, more than its size, is highlighted. Clearly we need a wave strong enough to make its way from the coast to the prairies, so it makes sense that we need at least 7 ways to power it.
  • Why Democrats are worried the “blue wave” might stop short of Florida. Another headline that emphasizes the spatial aspect of the blue wave — it needs to travel across the mammoth of a country to increase the number of Democrats elected in non-coastal places. The metaphor falls apart a little here, though, because if there’s any state that a wave should not have trouble reaching, it’s probably the one that’s a massive peninsula.
  • Is A Big, Blue Wave Forming Off The Political Coast? This headline references the origin of waves. They form off the coast. Upon reading the article, however, “off the coast” seems to actually be referring to the middle of the country. This is a bit confusing, as I’ve never heard of a wave forming in Indiana or Missouri, but it sounds nice, so let’s go with it.
  • ‘Blue wave’ would have undercurrent in California races. Now we’re getting into nuanced ocean metaphors.
  • Is a Blue Wave on Its Way? This article references turbulence among the President’s voters, which is another cool adaptation of a specific feature of waves… but it does make me wonder, why exactly are the Republican President’s voters riding on the blue wave?
  • With such a close race, the “blue wave” wasn’t crushed – but it might be dampened. This sentence, from an article describing a loss for Democrats, refers to another salient feature of waves — they’re wet. It’s not exactly intuitive to compare political wins to wetness, but I guess the implications is that the wetter the wave, the better (for Democrats).

To be honest, these creative “blue wave” uses don’t always make total sense to me, especially upon reflection. But they are creative, and in many cases productive, and that might be enough to get people thinking about, using, and acting on the “blue wave” this November.


Cover photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash.

Note: Since publishing this piece, I have learned that Indiana does experience large waves thanks to Lake Michigan. Thanks to a reader for keeping me informed!

We need a language makeover for dating and desire

 

At the end of 2017, the Me Too movement pushed an important issue to the front of our collective consciousness: sexual harassment and assault are horrifically common. Often, (but not always!) men have been the assailants and women have been the victims. How has our society made so much progress in so many areas, yet remained one that allows many men to prey on women, often with no consequence? The causes are complex, systemic, and intertwined, and many people are more qualified to speak to them than I am (for a few examples, Dr. Gerald Walton for The Conversation, Anna North for Vox, and Robert Cox for HuffPost).

But one under-appreciated cause of this social morass may be the metaphors we use to talk about courting and desire. New research by Drs. Jarrod Bock and Melissa Burkley explored whether the predator-prey metaphors that are often used to talk about dating and desire affect the way people think about rape. As Burkley points out in this great synopsis of the work, predator-prey metaphors are common in language about dating broadly, not just in recent #MeToo discourse (for example, when a male is courting a woman, it’s common to refer to “the chase,” or a man seeking a woman might be “on the prowl”). Importantly, the language is not restricted to men pursuing women — the predators and prey can be any gender. But the research focused on the most common predator-prey relationship — of men chasing women.

The researchers found that these metaphors are more than just a way of talking. In fact, men who read a description that included predator-prey metaphors held more “beliefs that perpetuate rape (e.g., women who are raped while drunk or sexily dressed asked for it; if a girl doesn’t fight back it’s not rape; women often lie about being raped)” than men who read about the same scenario, but without the predator language. In other words, these metaphors encouraged specific patterns in thought, consistent with thinking of men as predators and women as prey.

This does not mean that after a man hears the song “Animals” by Maroon 5, he’ll go out and rape the next woman he sees. But it does suggest that the more he hears language like the lyrics of Maroon 5’s song (“Baby I’m preying on you tonight/ Hunt you down eat you alive/ Just like animals”) the more normal it might be in his mind to take advantage of women — to prey on them.

Even though I think we should nix predator metaphors, I should also note that a number of women have appropriated these metaphors, using them in a way that empowers women speaking out. The hashtag #WomenWhoRoar shows that women don’t have to be relegated to prey.

Appropriation aside, predator metaphors are still dangerous because they perpetuate images of one party (usually men) chasing and capturing the other (usually women). This language contributes to rape culture, regardless of the genders of the predator and prey. The study by Bock and Burkley quantifies this problem, which is all the evidence I need to advocate that we enthusiastically drop predator metaphors from the way we talk about dating and desire.

So predator metaphors are out. While I’m tossing common metaphors for courting out the window, I’ll add another group to the no-go list — sports metaphors. When sports metaphors are used, it’s primarily men who aim to “score” with women, though both genders are guilty of “playing” hard-to-get and referring to all kinds of sexual activities with baseball metaphors (I’ve griped about this in the past). There’s no empirical research showing that these sports metaphors shape thought in unproductive ways, but I’ll speculate that they do. If we think about dating as a game, how seriously are we going to take it? Starting a relationship or having sex or whatever kids these days do… they’re all big deals, and probably more successful when treated as something more important than a sports game. Plus in sports, the objective is to win — to out-perform your opponents. I’ve never heard of a healthy relationship in which the two parties spent their time trying to defeat each other. So sports metaphors are out too.

What does that leave us with? Metaphors are so pervasive, especially for complicated situations like romance, so it’s unlikely that we’ll just stop using metaphors to talk about courting and desire altogether. We need more productive domains to compare them to — domains where there’s mutual respect. Where the aim is not to win or to satisfy a hunger, but to be content, safe — happy.

To be honest, I don’t have many good suggestions here, but I don’t doubt that good possibilities exist. A few somewhat corny clichés might work, like when we say that two people “have chemistry.” When combining the two elements, the product is something new and distinct from the individuals; no one wins. Rather than being “on the hunt,” you can search for someone with whom you “bond” — your “reactant.” Or maybe the go-to American peanut butter and jelly metaphor would work. “I’m just searching for someone to be the smooth peanut butter for my jelly.” Yeah, that’s not weird. Others have suggested that courting should be thought of as a dance — a collaborative effort consented to by both partners. Also intimate, pleasant, and beautiful.

I realize that guys might not rack up bro points by telling their buddies that they’re just looking for the sodium to their chloride, some sweet grape jelly, or a waltzing partner. These metaphors are not dude-approved. But I’m ok with that. #WomenWhoRoar


Cover photo by Stephane YAICH on Unsplash

Metaphors Trump Tweets By

Metaphors are everywhere — in our classrooms, hospitals, homes… and in Trump’s tweets.

In 1980, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson published a book, Metaphors We Live By, that catalyzed extensive research on the relationship between metaphor and thought. That book and much research since has argued that the metaphors we use in language reflect much deeper patterns in thought.

For example, we talk about arguments in terms of war — you can fight, defend, win, and lose both arguments and physical wars, for example. Researchers like Lakoff and Johnson suggest that we’re not merely talking about arguments in terms of wars, but actually thinking of them that way too.

Trump loves these metaphors.

Criticism directed at Schumer is a beating, to Trump. He also invokes the vivid idea of holding hostage to talk about arguing with Democrats during the government shutdown.

Another pervasive metaphor is the idea that good things are up (when you cheer someone up you lift their spirits, and in times of extreme happiness you’re on top of the world, for example). Relatedly, metaphors commonly express the idea that important things are large (like when we have big ideas or grandiose plans). Trump likes to rally his audiences by talking about how big America is(metaphorically), and the ways in which we are on top.

We dream big and reach high. And on the flip side, Trump’s enemies occupy low positions:

Another topic that we almost can’t talk about without invoking metaphors is time. There are many ways we use spatial metaphors to talk about time, but referring to the future as ahead of us and the past as behind is among one of the most common ways. Trump is well aware that forward is the direction of the future and of progress.

Then there’s the thing that, for Trump, is usually literal, but possibly for a small time became understood as metaphorical, which led to Trump’s assertion that it is MOST CERTAINLY LITERAL:

And in case you were wondering, the jury is still out on potential metaphorical underpinnings of covfefe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metaphor shapes thought: When, why, and how?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metaphors shape memory and attention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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.