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Brain, Cognition and perception

Life is different for people who think in metaphors

So, then, a metaphoric thinking style is an actual thing you can measure. But does it matter?

21 October 2015

By Christian Jarrett

Some people are literal-minded – they think in black and white whereas others colour their worlds with metaphor. A new paper published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reports on the first standardised measure of this difference, and it shows that having a proclivity for metaphors has real consequences, affecting how people respond to the world around them and even how they interact with others.

A metaphor uses a concrete concept, often sensory (e.g. "light") or location-based (e.g. "forward"), to illuminate a nebulous one, such as emotion or time. While this colouring-in can be useful – and can endure, and transform language – it may not be to everyone's taste, or necessary for the demands of their day-to-day life. To systematically investigate this, an international research team led by Adam Fetterman developed a measure – which asks people to choose their preference for various metaphors or equivalent literal phrases, for example: "She uses her head" vs. "She makes rational decisions" – and administered it to 132 student participants.

The researchers found a good deal of variability among the students in how they responded, including some who only ever selected the metaphor option, and others only the literal alternative. Scores on the measure correlated with a preference for mental imagery, and they correlated with the amount that participants used metaphoric phrases in a free writing exercise, confirming the test predicts actual behaviour. Conversely, the test scores were not associated with personality factors, with intellectual ability, nor with the ability to visualise, suggesting the test is measuring a mental style rather than a capacity. So, then, a metaphoric thinking style is an actual thing you can measure. But does it matter?

It does. Take the way metaphors can affect our feelings (known as the "metaphor transfer effect"). In a classic example, people rate neutral words as more pleasant when they are printed in a white font rather than a black one – "light" being associated metaphorically with "good". Before now researchers didn't agree on whether this kind of effect is truly down to reliance on metaphorical representations – a counter explanation is that these effects reflect fundamental, non-conceptual associations between different stimuli that were formed early in life – e.g. through repeated pairings of warmth and affection. However, when Fetterman and his team recruited a further 132 students, they found that those who scored higher on having a metaphoric thinking style also tended to show a greater preference for white-font over black-font words, thus providing good evidence that the metaphor transfer effect is aptly named, after all.

Another study took this out into the real world, tracking 136 people over a fortnight to see whether the amount of sweet food consumed on a given day influenced how agreeable they were in their interactions with other people. I would have imagined that if there were any effect, it might be simply due to a glucose buzz. But no. The link between sweet food consumption and people's behaviour that the researchers found was mostly down to thinking style. That is, the effect was much stronger among the highly metaphorical participants: when they were sweet in tooth, they were also sweet in nature (thus adding a nuance to previous research on this link).

Remember, too, that metaphors are supposed to illuminate, particularly when it comes to abstract concepts that can be hard to pin down, like the subtleties of emotions. In another experiment, Fetterman's team measured participants' ability to correctly judge most people's typical emotional response in different situations, such as when something unpleasant was happening that couldn't be stopped. In this example, the correct response was "distressed". Crucially, people who scored highly in metaphoric thinking style tended to perform better at this task. This suggests their colourful thinking style actually gave them greater insight into emotions.

In a final experiment, 50 participants spent 5 minutes each day for a week writing about their negative emotions, and they were encouraged to be either literal, "I felt anxious or confused," or metaphorical: "I felt like a leaf in the wind". The participants' depression symptoms and negative emotion ratings, which were recorded at the start and end of the week, were found to drop in the metaphorical condition only. Although this experiment didn't measure participants' metaphoric style, it shows that being encouraged to adopt this style is more effective in alleviating negative feelings on troubling topics.

From an experimenter's perspective, it's interesting to note that in the font-colour study, participants who were well below average in metaphor usage didn't show any significant preference for white words: those transfer effects don't work on me, Jedi. In fact, if the researchers had just looked at the average scores for the participants as a whole, the metaphor effect would have been undetectable. This suggests the new measure of metaphorical thinking style can help us to investigate meaning-related effects that might be elusive. For example, it might have value in pinning down findings in the contested area of social priming, helping to identify those people likely to be influenced by such effects. Furthermore, we've seen that a metaphorical thinking style has emotional benefits, but could it also be useful in non-emotional domains, for instance in the extent to which fishy smells activate sceptical thinking?

One thing's for sure – whether we prefer a crystal-clear monochrome take on the world, or to ladle on the technicolour, it's clear that metaphor usage filters how we take in the world, for good and ill.

Further reading

Fetterman, A., Bair, J., Werth, M., Landkammer, F., & Robinson, M. (2015). The Scope and Consequences of Metaphoric Thinking: Using Individual Differences in Metaphor Usage to Understand How Metaphor Functions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000067