Embodiment and Metaphor

Posted on October 6, 2009 by Peter Turney

I recently wrote about Criticisms of Lakoff’s Theory of Metaphor and how some of these criticisms can be addressed by integrating the work of Lakoff and Genter. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of conceptual metaphor theory (CMT) is the idea of embodied cognition, that metaphor is grounded in the sensory experiences of our bodies. I went looking for experimental evaluations of this idea and found some interesting papers.

The Boston Globe recently had a story on this topic:

Thinking literally: The surprising ways that metaphors shape your world
Drake Bennett

Drawing on philosophy and linguistics, cognitive scientists have begun to see the basic metaphors that we use all the time not just as turns of phrase, but as keys to the structure of thought. By taking these everyday metaphors as literally as possible, psychologists are upending traditional ideas of how we learn, reason, and make sense of the world around us.

Several researchers are mentioned, but no references are given, so I tracked down some of the references:

Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth
Lawrence E. Williams and John A. Bargh

… we hypothesized that experiences of physical warmth (or coldness) would increase feelings of interpersonal warmth (or coldness), without the person’s awareness of this influence …

Contemporary cognitive linguists have advanced similar arguments that people conceptualize their internal, mental worlds by analogy to the physical world (9–13). Applied to the question of how warm objects can produce the same affective states as a “warm” person, embodiment theorists have noted how objects and events that produce the same quality of affective response are associated (categorized) together in memory (14).

In summary, experiences of physical temperature per se affect one’s impressions of and prosocial behavior toward other people, without one’s awareness of such influences.

Cold and Lonely: Does Social Exclusion Literally Feel Cold?
Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoffrey J. Leonardelli

Metaphors such as icy stare and cold reception depict social exclusion using cold-related concepts; they are not to be taken literally and certainly do not imply reduced temperature. Two experiments, however, revealed that social exclusion literally feels cold.

The Smell of Virtue: Clean Scents Promote Reciprocity and Charity
Katie Liljenquist, Chen-Bo Zhong, and Adam D. Galinsky

Two experiments demonstrated that clean scents not only motivate clean behavior, but also promote virtuous behavior by increasing the tendency to reciprocate trust and to offer charitable help. Capitalizing on the fact that abstract concepts are often symbolically derived from the concrete environment (Emerson, 1836), our results suggest that olfactory cues can trigger virtuous behaviors that are related to cleanliness at only a symbolic level. The link from cleanliness to virtuous behavior appears to be a nonconscious one: in neither experiment did participants recognize an influence of scent on their behavior, and in Experiment 2, perceived cleanliness did not differ by condition nor correlate with the effects.

Weight as an Embodiment of Importance
Nils B. Jostmann, Daniël Lakens, Thomas W. Schubert

Four studies show that the abstract concept of importance is grounded in bodily experiences of weight. Participants provided judgments of importance while they held either a heavy or a light clipboard. Holding a heavy clipboard increased judgments of monetary value (Study 1), and made participants consider fair decision-making procedures to be more important (Study 2). It also caused more elaborate thinking as indicated by higher consistency between related judgments (Study 3) and by greater polarization between strong versus weak arguments (Study 4). In line with an embodied perspective on cognition, these findings suggest that, similar to how weight makes people invest more physical effort in dealing with concrete objects, weight also makes people invest more cognitive effort in dealing with abstract issues.

Here are the home pages of some people who are doing research in this area: