Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Metaphorically thinking

What is the purpose of a metaphor? A vivid figure of speech drawing comparisons between two things, a metaphor is typically used to aid our understanding of a complex concept. Yes, metaphors are tools we use to promote comprehension and add emotion to our descriptions. But are they more than that? Do the metaphors themselves actually shape how we perceive the world ... even when language isn't involved? Research summarized in the Boston Globe's article Thinking Literally indicates yes!

This article provides synopses of several psychology studies that reveal that metaphors shape our patterns of thought:
  • When participants filled out a questionnaire with a heavy or "weighty" clipboard in two studies, they considered questions more seriously and attributed more value to an unknown currency than those who held a light clipboard.
  • Subjects who held a warm cup of coffee versus a cup of iced coffee (not thinking it was part of the study) rated the personality of someone who was described to them as happier, more sociable, good natured, and more caring -- all "warmer" qualities. (Find a more in-depth look at this study here.)
These are fascinating insights that depict how the metaphors of our culture influence our subconscious processing. But when speaking cross-culturally, beware! Cultural interpretations of metaphors can vary greatly. An illustration: one Chinese friend gets such a kick out of the "angry burger" at Burger King. As an American, it's clear to me that the angry burger will be spicy as "anger" and "spicy" both indicate "heat". My friend, on the other hand, had no idea what it could possibly mean -- the metaphors in his culture did not connect the two. In sum, the results of the above research have implications for metaphor usage in a cross-cultural setting: we should now not only take caution with the metaphors we use in our language but also those we portray in our actions.

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