Thought Metaphors

Is crime alive? Where is musical pitch?
Neither question makes any sense.
And nonetheless, one can answer them. Crime can be a beast haunting local neighbourhoods and it must be eradicated – a description suggesting it is well and alive. And musical pitch is high or low.
Of course, these are all just metaphors useful for quickly talking about things without having to stop for lengthy definitions. However, they are not only linguistic short cuts. They are also mental short cuts – or opportunities for manipulation, if you prefer a more racy description. Last year, a bunch of studies showed examples of how far one can go with this.

A metaphorical breeding program.

Thibodeau and Boroditsky (2011) contrasted two common Western metaphors related to crime: the crime as a beast (preying on a town, lurking in the neighbourhood) and crime as a virus (infecting a town, plaguing the neighbourhood). They ‘activated’ these metaphors by using these words alongside fictional crime statistics of an unknown town. When participants were asked what to do about the town’s crime problem, those in the beast-condition were more likely to suggest law enforcement actions (capture, enforce, punish) than those in the virus-condition who often opted for reform-measures (diagnose, treat, inoculate).
Thus, a linguistic short-cut affected how people reacted to a realistic real world problem in the realm of social policy. And the effects are big. As one might expect, the same researchers also found political and gender differences (US Republicans as well as men tend to be more on the enforcement side than US Democrats/ Independents and women). Simply mentioning a metaphor was twice as powerful in shaping opinion than any of these variables.
high pitch

A literally high pitch.

In a different set of studies, even something as basic as the height of a tone was shown to be metaphorical. Dolscheid and colleagues (2011) showed that when a tone is presented with an image of height (basically a vertical line crossed by another line at a high or low point) this influences Westerners’ pitch repetition – as would be expected by the pitch-as-height metaphor. When Dutch participants sang a tone paired with a high line, they tended to sing higher. An image of thickness (a thick or thin line) was without influence. The reverse was the case for Farsi speakers even though they lived in the same country. In Farsi, low tones are called thick and high tones are called thin. In a second step, the research team trained people for only 20 minutes with the thickness metaphor – without them knowing. Afterwards, Dutch people performed similarly to Farsi speakers who had known it all their lives.
The wider point is one I have made before: Language is not just for talking, it is also a window into the Mind. However, the metaphor research goes further by also showing how easily this window gives access to the Mind, how easily we can be manipulated. Something as important as how to address crime can be influenced by a recently encountered metaphor. The same applies to something as basic as singing back a tone.
And don’t say they can be spotted easily. Or did you notice the race metaphor written black on white at the beginning of this post?
Dolscheid, S., Shayan, S., Majid, A., & Casasanto, D. (2011). The Thickness of Musical Pitch: Psychophysical evidence for the Whorfian hypothesis. Proceedings of the 33rd annual meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, Boston, MA.
Thibodeau, P.H., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. Plos One, 6 (2), e16782. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016782

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