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.


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.


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.

Screen Shot 2017-07-01 at 10.03.42 AM

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


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.


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.

Scientists Agree on Climate Change: A Gateway Belief


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It doesn’t get much clearer. The Earth’s climate is warming. Humans are the reason. But how many people are actually aware of the scientific consensus on this issue?

Research by Sander van der Linden and colleagues shows that when people believe that scientists overwhelmingly agree about climate change, they increase their a) own beliefs in climate change and b) beliefs that humans are responsible. They feel c) more worried about climate change, and as a result of a, b, and c, they support public action to mitigate the effects of climate change.


At the beginning of the study, participants indicated the percentage of scientists they thought agree on global warming and they answered some questions about their own climate change beliefs. People then received a message about scientific consensus, which took the form either of a) a simple description, b) a pie chart, or c) a metaphorical comparison related to trusting engineers’ consensus about bridges (i.e., if 97% of engineers agreed that a bridge was unsafe, would you use it?) or doctors’ consensus about illness. All the messages included the info that “97 % of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening.”

Then participants again indicated what percent of scientists they thought agree on global warming and answered questions about their own beliefs. All messages “worked,” in the sense that people perceived greater scientific agreement after the messages telling them that 97% of scientists agree than if they hadn’t read anything about the consensus at all (though the simple description and pie chart were more effective than the metaphor. People shifted their climate change beliefs more after encountering one of the more straightforward messages than the more complex metaphor. Great food for thought, as many science communicators insert metaphors wherever they can).

Of course, having people believe that there’s strong scientific consensus about climate is only one step toward the larger goal of having them endorse actions that mitigate the effects of climate change. But in follow-up analyses, the researchers identified that perceiving scientific agreement is a gateway belief: believing that scientists agree about global warming led to other beliefs, ones that get us closer to the goal of actions in favor of mitigating climate change. Specifically, it led to greater belief that climate change was real, human-caused, and worrisome. These beliefs, in turn, led to greater support for public action against climate change. It’s often hard to know what leads to what, especially when it comes to beliefs we keep hidden in our own heads, but with some semi-fancy math, these researchers quantified those relationships.

Climate 365 by NASA Goddard Space Space Flight Center. CC BY.

These studies have some clear takeaways for science communicators (especially when communicating about climate change — but maybe these ideas apply to other topics too — need more research!)

  • Emphasize scientific consensus, that an overwhelming percentage of scientists agree that climate change is a real problem caused by human activity.
  • Don’t worry so much about immediately pushing for public action against climate change. When people understand that scientists agree, they come to agree themselves that climate change is a problem that should be addressed, and THEN they come to support public action. Be careful about skipping steps.

At the same time, there’s not only one right way to communicate about climate change. There are truly effective ways, ineffective and potentially backfiring ways, and many in between. There aren’t cut-and-dry rules because every audience is unique, and taking the audience into account — their beliefs, values, and past experiences, for example — is crucial. But this work sheds light on communication strategies that are probably pretty far toward the “truly effective” end of the ways-to-communicate-climate-change continuum.

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.

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.

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

Reframing the war on science

America’s kind of tense right now. Leading up to and following the November 2016 election, there’s a lot of talk of “the two Americas” and “the Divided States of America.” Americans are divided on a lot of issues, including scientific topics like vaccine safety and global warming. To many, it’s surprising that we disagree about these things because according to scientists who research these topics, there are no debates at all: vaccines do not cause autism and humans are responsible for global warming

At the same time, the current administration in the US has sent numerous messages that they devalue science (for example, by censoring scientists at organizations like the USA and EPA and establishing a Committee on Vaccine Safety). Actions like these seem to be only fueling the divided science beliefs.

In response, many people have declared that we’re in a war on science: This idea is expressed in headlines like Facts are the reason science is losing the current war on reason, How the Anti-Vaxxers are Winning, and documentary titles like The Vaccine War. (There are so many pieces that talk about the war on science).

Scientific American

I’m a PhD student in Cognitive Science, a firm believer in the scientific method and basing beliefs and actions on evidence. I highly value scientific funding, vaccinations, and measures that reduce the effects of climate change. As Americans, we have freedom of speech, and we should exercise that freedom to speak up when scientific knowledge and interests are being trampled on. I agree with the ideas expressed in blog posts like The War on Facts is a War on Democracy and I’m a Scientist. This is what I’ll Fight for and many of the ideas that continuously populate threads on Twitter like #defendscience and #resist. But I’m much less enthusiastic about the widespread use of a war metaphor to get those ideas across.

Here’s why.

Metaphors shape thought

The metaphors we use to describe complex social problems actually shape the way we think about them. For example, when crime was described as a beast ravaging a town, people tended to suggest harsh law enforcement policies — similar to how they’d likely react to a literal beast ravaging their town. On the other hand, when that same crime was described as a virus, people suggested fewer harsh enforcement policies. Instead, they turned their focus to curing the town of problems that may underlie the crime, like improving education and welfare services.

People make inferences in line with the metaphors used to describe complex issues, so it’s important to reflect on what the war on science implies. It does have some helpful implications. Wars are serious, and often require urgent action. These are probably the messages that those who perpetuate the war on science want us to infer, even if not consciously.

But the war also suggests that there are enemies and casualties. There are two sides locked in combat, and neither will back down until they win (or they’re decimated). I like this quote from A Gentleman in Moscow, a novel I just happened to be reading while working on this post: After all, in the midst of armed conflicts, facts are bound to be just as susceptible to injury as ships and men, if not more so. In other words, we sometimes do stupid things in wars. We shirk thoughtfulness and conscientiousness, and instead we just fight. As I see it, our current political situation (for lack of a better word) needs all the thoughtfulness and conscientiousness we can give it.  

I recently expressed my concern in a conversation on Twitter:

The war metaphor challenges those who are not already on the “side” of science. It tells them they’re the enemy. When people feel that they’re being attacked, even idealistically, they’re likely to strengthen their stance and gear up to fight back. No matter how many scientists tweet about science or participate in the March for Science on Earth Day, people who have found themselves on the “anti-science” side of this war are not going to decide all of a sudden that climate change must be real after all or that they should rush their kids to the pediatrician for overdue vaccines (especially if we tell them we’re marching to fight the war on science!). People who have already been labeled as the enemy of science may as well go out and buy a new gas guzzler and decide that their kids are just fine without vaccines.

Others have already pointed out that actions like the science march are already in jeopardy of isolating anti-science proponents as opponents (for example see  Daniel Engber’s piece for Slate and Robert Young’s in the New York Times). Using war metaphors has the potential to only hammer that point home.

This just doesn’t seem productive. Image: Battle by Thomas Hawk. CC BY-NC 2.0

Alternative frames?

If we want to stop thinking about ourselves as engaged in a war on science, we need an alternative. Proponents of and believers in science are experiencing a sort of struggle, but it doesn’t have to be a fight between the left and right, Democrats and Republicans, Coastal Elite and Middle America. Maybe we can reframe the situation as a challenge that unites all humans. Science communicators want to share how important it is to address climate change and to have children vaccinated for the good of all people. We can all be on the same side, working to better the world we live in, and it’s important that we convey that message in our communications.

Referring to the movie Hidden Figures, NPR blogger Marcelo Gleiser points out that if there is a central lesson in the movie, it is that united we win; that what makes America great is not segregation and intolerance, but openness and inclusiveness.

I considered the possibility that guiding people to trust empirical evidence and the scientific process might be better framed as a puzzle — a challenge, no doubt, but at least everyone’s working toward a common goal.

Marisa makes a really important point. The peacekeeper in me would love a frame that emphasizes hey, guys! We’re all in this together!, but that ship may have already sailed. At this point, it’s important not to downplay the gravity of discrediting and distrusting science. This is not a game.


I’ve had quite a few conversations on the war on science, but I still don’t have a one-size-fits-all framing suggestion for talking about America’s disconnect in belief in science. But when we’re considering talking about this issue as a war, it’ll be helpful to step back and assess our goals and the potential consequences of the words we use.

Right now, there are deep social and political divides in American society — and though it’s crucial to stand up for what we believe in (especially science and facts!), we should be careful about taking up arms in a war on science that might deepen those divides. 

I welcome other comments on the framing of the war on science. Do you find the war helpful? Why? Are there other frames we could use to avoid deepening ideological divides?

Featured image: United States USA Flag by Mike Mozart. CC BY 2.0