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How Metaphors Affect Our Thinking and Behaviour

Spike W. S. Lee is an assistant professor of Marketing at the Rotman School of Management explains relation between Metaphors and Thinking

Published: Dec 11, 2013 07:40:49 AM IST
Updated: Dec 11, 2013 02:00:30 PM IST

Your research is focused on the notion of metaphors in our thinking. What is the relationship between the way we think and the metaphors we use in everyday life?

What we are finding is that our minds interact with our bodies in multiple ways, and that mind-body connections are often predicted by the metaphors we use.  My background is in Social Psychology. I’m very interested in how the human mind represents knowledge. For example, how do we understand unobservable, intangible, abstract notions like morality, love or trust? I study how these concepts are represented using bodily states.  For instance, we sometimes talk about morality in terms of ‘clean’ vs. ‘dirty’; or we talk about love as a ‘perfect fit’ between two people. We frequently use body-related metaphors to understand these abstract concepts.

Spike W.S.Lee
Spike W.S.Lee
You have said that when our minds capture and process other people’s behaviour, three of the most salient dimensions are warmth, competence and morality.  Please explain.
When you think about these three dimensions, each is metaphorically structured. For example, we use the physical experience of warmth to talk about social warmth. We might say, “She is such a warm person”; obviously, we’re not saying that this individual has a high body temperature -- we mean that she is considerate and kind.

Likewise, we think of people that are powerful and competent as being ‘high up’, whereas powerless people are viewed as being ‘down at the bottom’. In this case, we are using a vertical dimension to structure competence and incompetence. In the case of morality, it tends to be classified as ‘clean equals moral and dirty equals immoral’. So once again, an important social cognition concept like morality is very metaphorical in nature.

To what extent do you think our thought processes and subsequent behaviour are influenced by metaphors?
What we are finding is that these metaphors do tend to influence people. Even words that we use unthinkingly can sometimes have an effect on our behaviour.
Let’s talk a bit more about the cleanliness metaphor and morality. How do we know that physical and moral purity are correlated in the mind?

This correlation has been tested in two directions. The first involves looking at language, and the second, at psychological consequences. Let’s first talk about language. If it is true that physical and moral purity are related in our minds, then in our language we should see lots of expressions that intertwine these two together. Sure enough, we have expressions like ‘wash away your sins’, ‘come clean’ and ‘that is dirty politics’. So we talk about morality in terms of physical cleanliness, but do we really think about morality in these terms?

To test this, researchers have run studies where people do something immoral (or moral) and see how it influences their desire to cleanse. And if they do cleanse themselves – wash their hands, for instance -- they look at whether it makes the subject feel less immoral or less guilty. Based on research by my Rotman colleague Chen-Bo Zhong and others, it seems that the answer is yes.

What I am most interested in is, now that we have this evidence, can we apply this idea to other domains, beyond the realm of morality? Can people also ‘wash away’ non-moral concerns?  

Again, the answer is yes:  in my research I have found that, just as washing can ‘cleanse us’ from traces of past immoral behaviour, it can also cleanse us from traces of past decisions, reducing the need for us to justify those decisions.  Put simply, washing our hands ‘wipes the slate clean’, removing any doubts about recent choices we have made.  

How is this ‘clean slate effect’ relevant in day-to-day life?
I believe it is relevant to many choices in life. For example, does washing away the urge to justify one's choice of one car over another -- or even one romantic partner over another -- result in less-rosy evaluations of them in the long run? And if so, does this increase ‘buyer's remorse’, because buyers are less likely to convince themselves that they made the best choice possible?  
In general, physical cleansing seems to remove past concerns, and this can have a wide variety of implications.

How does your research factor into decision-making?
When you are about to make a decision, you think about the options at hand. You look at the pros and cons, or you rely on your general instincts. Suppose you are deciding whether to hire one person over another. It so happens that you like the first person better – he or she is more kind and approachable, and you believe your colleagues will get along with her. You can base your judgement on how the candidate interacts when being interviewed, but you might also base it on the physical warmth you felt from the person. Perhaps you were holding a warm cup of coffee when you met this candidate for the first time, and that physical warmth fed into your perception that the person is socially warm. This might bias your judgement and influence who you want to give the job to.

The fact is, we are constantly interacting with our physical environment, and these bodily experiences can shape our abstract thoughts and contribute to our decision-making.

Are there any concrete examples of how metaphors have resulted in bad decisions, especially at the policy level?
Researchers have only recently started looking at the psychological consequences of metaphors. There is however, linguistic work being done right now that looks at political discourse and tries to see how Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. frame problems differently with language, including metaphorical phrases. I’ll be keeping a close eye on these findings.

How important is it for leaders to understand the effects of metaphors on social cognition?
If you look at branding, for example, it is quite important. Research indicates that there are five aspects of a ‘brand personality’, and all of them are metaphorically structured: sincerity, excitement, confidence, sophistication and ruggedness. If you think about these characteristics, it isn’t difficult to see how each is grounded in bodily experience.  If you want to create a brand that captures certain values on each of these dimensions, you have to make sure that the bodily experience you provide is consistent with these dimensions. This also means that you can’t ‘go against’ bodily experience to facilitate a person’s perception of your brand.  

What is the economic applicability of understanding metaphors in human thinking?
My sense is that metaphors may prove to fundamentally shape economic models. In traditional economic models, people are viewed as rational decision makers: we look at the options, we calculate the probability of return from each of the options, and we derive the expected utility. In this model, people only look at data -- relying only on a very quantifiable mode of evaluation that doesn’t seem to involve bodily experiences or metaphorically-related views.

This is a precise-but-narrow window into human nature. It says that we are maximizers of our own profit, but it doesn’t take into account factors like fairness and our own personal social concerns based on the environment we were raised in. Even if there is a model that takes these factors into account, I suspect it doesn’t consider how these concerns are activated – such as for example, the bodily experience of being clean. To the extent that certain bodily experiences can create moral concerns, I believe this has an impact on the economic model and on the extent to which human beings can be considered as rational actors.

For example, we have studied the discomfort that people experience when they have to make difficult decisions. Think about choosing where to go for your summer vacation: say you’re choosing between Paris or Rome; and eventually you decide to go to Paris. People want to feel that they made the right choice, and to do that, they focus on the positive features of the chosen option. They think about how fantastic the cuisine is, and the art museums and so forth. In comparison, Rome is historically rich, but you can tell yourself that ‘it's just not as exciting’. Essentially, you focus on the positive features of the chosen option and the relatively negative features of the rejected option; and as a consequence, you come to like the chosen option even more after you make the choice.

This is called choice justification, and my research has shown that when people are not given a chance to wash their hands, they show this classic pattern. But once you give them a chance to wash their hands, they no longer exhibit choice justification: ‘washing their hands of the decision’ removes past concerns, and allows them to sort of wipe the slate clean, and the reason for this is metaphorical connection.  

Spike W. S. Lee is an assistant professor of Marketing at the Rotman School of Management.  Rotman faculty research is ranked in the top ten worldwide by the Financial Times.

[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]

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  • Udayan Paul


    on Dec 14, 2013