Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Metaphor Creates Intimacy and Temporarily Enhances Theory of Mind

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Metaphor Creates Intimacy and Temporarily Enhances Theory of Mind

Article excerpt

Published online: 12 March 2015

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2015

Abstract In 3 experiments we show that, relative to reading literal sentences, reading metaphor enhances performance on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET), an instrument meant to measure first-order theory of mind. In each experiment participants read metaphorical or literal sentences in different contexts and afterwards completed an ostensibly unrelated task, the RMET. In Experiment 1, participants were presented metaphorical or literal sentences in short discourse contexts and were asked questions about the characters in the stories. We found that when one of the characters used metaphor, they were rated as having a closer relationship. A novel finding is that the degree to which the characters are perceived as being more intimate in the metaphor condition, the higher their scores on the RMET. In Experiment 2, participants created fictive contexts to prompting literal or metaphorical sentences. This writing task was followed by the RMET. Participants who created contexts for the metaphors scored significantly higher on the RMET. In Experiment 3,participants read metaphors or literal counterparts without any discourse contexts. Once again, participants scored higher on the RMET after reading metaphorical as opposed to literal sentences. Additional analyses across the 3 experiments revealed that metaphors but not literal counterparts were associated with fictive contexts that contained reference to mental states and idioms with emotional content (Experiment 2), were associated with a sense of intimacy between interlocutors (Experiment 1), the presence of affective words in the created context (Experiment 2), and association with a human agent when context was not presented (Experiment 3).

Keywords Pragmatics . Language comprehension . Discourse processing . Metaphor . Theory of mind

Metaphor creates intimacy and temporarily enhances theory of mind

Metaphor is a type of figurative language that alters the literal meaning of words and phrases. Although once considered an intentionally misleading and cognitively taxing form of language (see summary by Gibbs, 1994), current research shows metaphor is commonly used in conversation and is comprehended with relative ease. Cameron (2008) estimated that we use 50 metaphors per thousand words in discourse, with Glucksberg (1989) hypothesizing that one person over a 60-year life span uses millions of metaphors and other types of nonliteral language.

The main research emphasis in metaphor studies has been focused on how one infers a nonliteral meaning from the explicit or surface meaning of a sentence presented to them (e.g., Gibbs, 1994; Glucksberg, 2001). There is a much smaller literature focused on understanding why people speak metaphorically when literal language might have been used. Most of these explanations involve communicative or cognitive goals, such as providing a compact and efficient way to state a complex message; enhancing the vividness of the message; and serving to illuminate, clarify, or explain a concept that is not easily understood with literal language (Ortony, 1975). Other cognitive roles for metaphor have also been suggested, such as being especially persuasive (Sopory & Dillard, 2002) or in creating a stronger memory trace (e.g., Whitney, Budd, & Mio, 1996).

Without discounting the cognitive or communicative function of metaphor, we emphasize here and expand upon an even smaller research literature that implicates metaphor usage in creating social bonds and in understanding other's intentions. The general thrust of this argument is captured by philosopher Ted Cohen. Cohen (1978) made the following claim:

I want to suggest a point in metaphor which is independent of the question of cognitivity and which has nothing to do with its aesthetic character. I think of this point as the achievement of intimacy. There is a unique way in which the maker and the appreciator of a metaphor are drawn closer to one another. …

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