14 Nov '17
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How linguistic metaphor scaffolds reasoning

Continuing the line of inquiry pioneered by Lakoff and Johnson’s 1980 book, “Metaphors We Live by”, Thibodeau et al. provide further examples of how the use of metaphor shapes our thoughts. I’m passing on their summary, and also two figures.

Abstract

Language helps people communicate and think. Precise and accurate language would seem best suited to achieve these goals. But a close look at the way people actually talk reveals an abundance of apparent imprecision in the form of metaphor: ideas are ‘light bulbs’, crime is a ‘virus’, and cancer is an ‘enemy’ in a ‘war’. In this article, we review recent evidence that metaphoric language can facilitate communication and shape thinking even though it is literally false. We first discuss recent experiments showing that linguistic metaphor can guide thought and behavior. Then we explore the conditions under which metaphors are most influential. Throughout, we highlight theoretical and practical implications, as well as key challenges and opportunities for future research.

Trends

Metaphors pervade discussions of abstract concepts and complex issues: ideas are ‘light bulbs’, crime is a ‘virus’, and cancer is an ‘enemy’ in a ‘war’.

At a process level, metaphors, like analogies, involve structure mapping, in which relational structure from the source domain is leveraged for thinking about the target domain.

Metaphors influence how people think about the topics they describe by shaping how people attend to, remember, and process information.

The effects of metaphor on reasoning are not simply the result of lexical priming.

Metaphors can covertly influence how people think. That is, people are not always aware that they have been influenced by a metaphor.

Two figures (click to enlarge):

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