Psychologists’ research focuses on metaphors

By Catherine Robertson Souter
January 1st, 2010

Human language is rife with metaphors. We label an easy work assignment as a “piece of cake” and call a difficult task an “uphill battle.”

In fact, metaphors are so common in the way we talk that we don’t really notice them – or attach much importance to them.

There’s a movement within social psychology to take a closer look at those metaphors we so casually toss around like a football at a backyard picnic. Current research into the metaphors we use most often, for instance that a person can be “warm” or “cold,” or that we can feel “close” to them emotionally, has shown that the physical world is much more at play in a human’s emotional and psychological state than was previously thought.

One of the leading researchers in this area, John Bargh, Ph.D, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University’s Department of Psychology and director of Yale’s ACME Lab (Automaticity in Cognition, Motivation, and Evaluation), spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about the work being done in this area and its potential for both understanding the functions of the human mind and for exploiting them.

Q: Your work is done under the auspices of a National Institute of Mental Health grant. What’s the research’s focus?

A: The title of our grant is “Unconscious Sources of Self Regulation” which essentially means all the ways in which mental processes or systems are guiding our behavior without our awareness they are going on.

We all feel like the captains of our souls and ships – that we are in control and making decisions. It just turns out that there are all kinds of unconscious systems operating underneath the surface.

Q: From where do these unconscious systems stem?

A: Prior to the evolution of consciousness, there had to be some system that guided what we did adaptively in order to survive and procreate. Once we acquired the ability to think about the past and plan for the future, we didn’t lose those old systems. They are still generating impulses or suggestions about what to do. Since these impulses are still inside us, they tend to be starting points for how more abstract processes develop.

The idea is that we start innately with the physical thing because we need those to understand and move around our world, the basics. And then we use those ideas to develop, as children. But, that link is always there even as adults.

Q: In one study, you handed participants a cold or hot cup of coffee before the study began. When you asked them about someone being described to them, those who had handled the hot cup used warmer terms in their rating. The physical sensation of warmth can affect our opinions?

A: The physical can activate the social without our knowing it. That is underlying all the metaphor effects.

When we look at psychological pain, from things like being rejected, the same areas in the brain light up as when feeling physical pain. The same kinds of systems are activated when you encounter a “warm” person as when you hold a hot cup of coffee.

Q: With metaphors, we use terms from the physical world to understand abstract ideas like a “warm” person, but our physical environment can also manipulate how we make decisions about that abstract idea?

A: Distance is the same thing. Feelings of psychological or emotional closeness or distance can be manipulated by physical experiences of distance.

If you were given a piece of graph paper and told to plot points and the two points happen to be relatively far on the graph paper or relatively close, that influences your feelings of emotional closeness to someone. You will have less desire to want to see family and friends compared to the people who plot the points close together. You are also less affected by disturbing photographs like autopsies or accident victims or violent media.

Another study that was done in Toronto by Chen-Bo Zhong, Ph.D, is called the Macbeth effect. If you are asked to remember something you did blameworthy in the past, you are more likely to want to wash your hands afterward.

Q: Where does all this lead?

A: There is some really deep stuff that this is telling us about human nature. We are still tied to the physical world and influenced by our physical world in ways we don’t understand.

The social world and the physical world all determine what we do and how we feel. So it is like we are being played. The world is playing us…without our realizing it, of course.

Q: The whole idea of being played brings up a frightening thought. How much of this leads to controlling people? Advertising for young children already happens. How could this affect public policy, schools or even voting? Can we make voting booths different to affect the way you may vote?

A: As a matter of fact, yes. In the last two years it’s been shown that if you vote in a school you are more likely to vote for funding for school programs. If you vote in a church, you are more likely to vote for the church’s positions on issues.

A study we published last summer showed that food ads increase junk food consumption in children and adults 45 percent more than if those ads are not shown.

Now it is cigarettes. Perversely, it’s the no smoking ads, the anti-drug ads that are increasing smoking and drug use.

Q: Because even mentioning it…?

A: Martin Lindstrom [a marketing advisor for Fortune 100 companies including McDonald’s, Nestle and Pepsi], has a Web site where he shows how he has done neural imaging on people while they watch ads. He shows that these anti-smoking ads light up the same brain centers that drive smoking behavior or drug use. We hear the idea about smoking and that’s the cue directly.

Q: So maybe secretly, the cigarette companies are funding anti-smoking ads?

A: That’s what we think. The one thing that got me onto this was the Philip Morris ad that said to go to their Web site and learn about how smoking is bad for you. The visuals on the Web site, the only thing you see over and over is smoking… the word “smoking.” Now, this is all conjecture because all we really know is our experimental evidence that the effect of these ads is to increase smoking. But, then you infer the motive – they certainly stand to gain, they are paying for this ad and they have no other way to get on television.

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