6/26 Language and Thought: An Interview with Lera Boroditsky

Russ Volckmann

Lera Boroditsky

Lera Boroditsky

Lera Boroditsky, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD and Editor in Chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology. She studies language and cognition, specifically focusing on interactions between language, cognition, and perception. She received her B.A. from Northwestern University and her Ph.D. from Stanford University. Her research combines insights and methods from linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, and anthropology. She has received several awards for her research, including an NSF CAREER award, the Marr Prize from the Cognitive Science Society, and being named a Searle Scholar. Her work has been published in academic journals and other publications such as the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Scientific American.

—Russ Volckmann

Russ Volckmann

Russ Volckmann

Russ: I feel really privileged to have this opportunity to speak with Lera Boroditsky. I have read a number of her articles on language and how it influences the way we think. I have watched her lectures online. She has impressed me as someone who is cutting new ground in the world around language and meaning and the things that we use that language for, how we shape our worldviews with it and the like.
Lera, thank you very much for joining me and I look forward to our conversation.

Lera: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to chat.

Russ: Your background as we note in the introduction to this interview involves your graduate work at Stanford. You were also doing work at MIT at one point, I believe. At Stanford, you were an assistant professor of, as I understand it, psychology, philosophy, and linguistics, which sounds very transdisciplinary to me. Now you’re at the University of California, San Diego, where you are Associate Professor of… ?

Lera: I’m now an Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD. Cognitive Science here is an interdisciplinary department that is home to folks who are trained in psychology, in linguistics, in neuroscience, computer science, philosophy and anthropology. So we have quite a melting pot.

Russ: This connects to our development of a more transdisciplinary approach to how we understand the world and ourselves. When you did your Ph.D., was that in a particular discipline? Was it Cognitive Science at the time?

Lera: My undergraduate degree was in Cognitive Science. That was at Northwestern in Chicago. My graduate degree was in Cognitive Psychology at Stanford, so it was inside the Psychology Department. But the kind of work I do is inspired by philosophical questions, philosophical ideas and very much inspired by ideas in linguistics and linguistic analyses that come from cognitive linguistics, in particular, and also very much dependent on anthropology and anthropological inquiry and iconography that details the other work that anthropologists do.

What I started to do in my dissertation was to try to bring together insights from those different fields and see how we could apply the tools of cognitive psychology, the tools of empirical psychology, to measure more precisely and capture in experiments the kinds of observations that people were making in linguistics and anthropology to answer questions that people were asking in philosophy.

Russ: Is there a particular philosophical orientation that has influenced you?

Lera: Probably the strongest influence on me has been Wittgenstein and his view of language meaning as arising from individual and contextual patterns of use. I started out thinking about language and meaning for a very different purpose. I actually thought if we apply scientific rigor, we will be able to figure out what the meanings of words really are.

As I learned more, both through empirical research and through reading Wittgenstein and others, that is exactly the opposite of what happens when you pay very close attention to the meanings of words, rather than learning what the words really mean. You learn how meaning is constructed on the fly and in context from many different uses. But that caused a very pleasant revolution in my own thinking about it.

Russ: One of the people you reference is Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist whose work is in tension with a lot of Western psychology, which focuses, for the most part, on the individual. Vygotsky and his followers have worked more in a dialogical orientation to psychology, i.e, that meaning making is derived from the dialogical relationship between the individual and their human and non-human context. Has that been a significant influence in your work?

Lera: Certainly, Vygotsky is a significant influence. I’m not sure that I would agree with the characterization of empirical psychology as a whole as being very focused on the individual. It certainly depends on which branch of psychology we are considering. So cognitive psychology has certainly, just as you said, focused on the individual and has generally treated the object of study as being inside a single mind, kind of a very solopsistic view of cognition.

But social psychology, for example, is concerned with interaction and how we come to be the way we are through interaction with others, how people influence each other, how social contexts influence our behavior, how any individual regardless of their personal traits might act differently depending on the social context that they find themselves in. So I think it really depends on the branch of psychology. There has been more separation than is healthy between cognitive psychology and social psychology over the last few decades. But that is now narrowing and many more people are making connections to try to understand not just an individual in isolation but also how cognition emerges in the social context.

Russ: Writers like Per Linell have looked at both monological and dialogical notions of sense and meaning making and see the relationship between them as a both/and, as opposed to an either/or. That’s what you’re suggesting. Is that right?

Lera: I’m not sure about that specific formulation. I’m just not familiar with it. But there has been attention, certainly in the study of language, about whether to treat it as an object that resides inside an individual mind as opposed to a means of communication or something that’s negotiated across lots of people. Certainly, my view on it is always that it is a social and communicative object and that meanings of words are negotiated in conversation.

It may seem obvious, but one of the important things about language is that it is for communicating with others, for making meaning with others. That isn’t the view that everyone has. For example, Noam Chomsky championed the idea of language as residing in the individual mind. In fact, for him, the argument was that language is not really primarily for communication; it’s for thinking. It’s an individual tool for thinking. It’s for making beautiful structures inside your own mind.

The argument that he proposed was that language is actually a pretty crummy tool for communication. There are all kinds of misunderstandings that occur. I think George Bernard Shaw said that the biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred. We always think we’re making ourselves very clear and that other people must be generating the idea that we want them to generate in response to the things we say, but we’re very often wrong.

Chomsky pointed out that language is in fact a pretty crummy system for communicating and, not only that. but we communicate in lots of other ways. You can communicate by the way you walk and the way you dress and what you eat. All of these have communicative signals. To him that wasn’t the interesting part of language. A lot of people started focusing on language in the Chomsky tradition – that it resides only in individual minds, not as a social object. So that’s a very different perspective on it.

Russ: For the individual, though, one of the things that you’ve indicated is that your interest is in how languages that we speak shape the way we think. Is that correct?

Lera: That’s right.

Russ: Let me propose something: if the languages we speak shape the way we think, then by implication the way we think is going to shape our meaning making, which in turn is going to  influence our behaviors. Is that a fair statement?

Lera: Sure! And in fact the only way we can measure how people think is by measuring their behavior. So the kinds of experiments that you can do in the cognitive psychology tradition is to either find people who have been exposed to different linguistic patterns, or expose people to different linguistic patterns in the lab, and then measure some aspects of their behavior.

That could be, “What do you remember after seeing a scene?” So you have people with different linguistic backgrounds witness the same event and see if there are differences in the kinds of things they remember about the event, based on their linguistic experience. Or you could measure how quickly people can make a distinction, say, between two colors. Or you can measure how similar people will say two things are. But all of these things that you’re measuring are in fact behavior, so even the idea that people think differently is an inference from the behavior that we can measure.

Russ: I noticed that in a Wall Street Journal article of yours, “Lost in Translation”, the editors included a lead statement that indicate, “New cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world”. Seeing the world: I translate that into a worldview perspective. Does that suggest that the different languages or even the different ways we use language within a language culture help to influence the way we make sense out of our world, how we see the world and ourselves in relationship to it, and what is happening in the world around us?

Lera: Something as big and encompassing as a “worldview” is very hard to measure in a single experiment. So the way people do research, both in my lab and all other labs in cognitive psychology, is to look at some particular process and some particular task. We don’t have the tools to measure any one person’s worldview. That’s just not possible, because people know so many things, have so many opinions and have experienced so many things. We can’t capture even one person with any kind of precise measurements. So it’s a really tall order to say that this whole group of people is different in their entire worldview than this other group of people.

But what we can do is ask about specific things so we can say: how do people construe time? How do people build their representation of time? Or how do people orient in space? Do they think of space with a relation to their bodies or do they think of space with a relation to the landscape? Or we can ask: how do people do mathematics in their minds? Do they have ideas of precise numbers? Does the structure of their number system in their mind reflect the structure of language? And so on. You can ask: how do people understand causal events? Do they believe that events must have a human agent that causes outcomes or do they allow other sources of cognition?

Across all of these things, we are asking more specific questions, so we say: How do people think about time? How do they think about space? How do they construct numbers? How do they think about events? How do they differentiate colors or how do they make inferences about objects? All of these elements are fundamental building blocks of cognition. These are all ingredients of a worldview. These are all elements that would go into someone’s worldview.

But no single one of them can represent the entire worldview. They are all just parts. Of course, if you know that all these fundamental parts are different, then the whole will be different as well. But it’s very hard to make a very precise claim about something as big as a worldview just because there are so many parts.

Russ: And probably, at least according to Clare Graves, other variables include life conditions in any given situation.

Lera: Oh, sure. Yes, lots of context.

Russ: I noticed that there was a response to a Scientific American article that you wrote from Dr. Schuh in the Department of Linguistics at UCLA. He said, “Insofar as there is any connection at all between linguistics, structure, and thought, human experience shapes the properties of language; languages do not shape how humans experience the world.” And he represents that as a widely shared perspective among linguists. How would you respond to that?

Lera: Well, that has been falsified by lots and lots of data. The question of the direction of causality is very interesting. Certainly, if you just find that two groups of people who speak differently also think differently, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the way they talk could shape the way they think. It could be that the way they think has shaped the way they talk, or it could be that some other third thing that’s neither the way they think or the way they talk has shaped both of those things. In fact, all you have there is a correlation. You don’t have evidence of causality.

So why do I and lots of other people make the claim that language shapes the way we think? Well, because people do experiments to specifically manipulate language and see if that changes what you think. This is a standard empirical approach.

If you want to know if sunshine effects how quickly peas grow, you manipulate the amount of sunshine that peas get and see if it has consequences for pea growth. In our experiments, we do exactly the same thing. We specifically manipulate language. We teach people new ways of talking, we stop them from being able to use language, we prime them to use a particular type of linguistic construction or another, and then we see if there are consequences for cognition. Across lots and lots of these scientific experiments and labs around the world, you see that language is an incredibly powerful tool for shaping thought. There is no question that it has causal power.

Russ: So there are actually several ways, as I understand it, that you’ve gone about your work. For example, one is looking at the question of agency and how the language shapes notions of agency in causing events to happen. I think you were comparing – I am testing my memory here – Spanish and Japanese speakers? Is that right?

Lera: Spanish, Japanese, and English speakers, yes.

Russ: Could you tell us a little bit about that work?

Lera: Sure. We got interested in how people describe causal events that are a little bit complicated. Accidents, in general, require a lot of interpretation. Even events, in general, require us to construe a lot more than we realize. We think, “Oh, I saw what happened, so I know what happened as a result.” We think we perceive events, but in fact we have to do a lot of work to interpret what happens.

Let me give you an example. A few years ago, Dick Cheney went out hunting with his friend, Harry Whittington, and he accidentally shot Whittington in the face. Now, that accident, that event, is a split second physical event. It’s a very simple event in comparison to, say, global warming or the collapse of the global economy or something like that. Those are complicated events that have many moving parts; they unfold over large periods of time.

But something like shooting someone in the face, that doesn’t take long. It’s a physical action and it takes only a split second. But there is a huge amount of variation on how we could describe this event in language. We could say Cheney shot Whittington. That’s a simple, direct causal description. Or we could say Whittington got shot by Cheney. Now we’ve moved Cheney a little bit out of the event. We’ve made the description passive and Cheney is kind of just dangling at the end. Or we could say just that Whittington got shot. That’s a perfectly good description that leaves Cheney out of it altogether. The text and newspapers at the time said things like “He got peppered pretty good.” Again, that’s not something that includes Cheney. It’s just about the outcome.

Now, Cheney himself, when he was asked to comment on this – this was when he was taking full responsibility – said, “Well, ultimately, I’m the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry.” This is a split second physical event but he says, “I’m the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry.” There are three different events that unfold in his sentence within the split second.

Bush actually did one better. He said something like, “He heard a bird flush and he turned and pulled the trigger and saw his friend get wounded.” That is magical exculpation. So there, Cheney transforms from agent to mere witness by the end of the sentence, that he saw his friend get wounded.

Now, that’s just to give you a sense of how many different ways we could take this very simple event and describe it as being a bunch of different events chained together. We could put Cheney in the eventive role or in the witness role. He could change roles in the course of that split second event. We could leave Cheney out altogether. We could leave Whittington out altogether and say Cheney shot some guy. So we have so many different ways of construing even this very, very simple event. And this is true for any event that you choose. There are going to be lots and lots of ways – more detail you could focus on, less detail, a different way of framing it, a different way of construing it.

Languages differ in the ways of talking about events that are normal or canonical. English is actually quite weird in that we don’t distinguish very strongly between events that are accidental and ones that are intentional. If I break a cup by accident, it’s fine to say, “She broke the cup.” And if I break that same cup intentionally, it is also fine to say, “She broke the cup.” It’s just fine to use the same construction whether something was an accident or intentional.

In fact, we can say things in English like, “I broke my arm.” In lots of languages, you can’t say that because, unless you’re crazy, you’re not looking to break your arm and you succeeded. It is likely that breaking your arm was an accident. A lot of languages require you to say something like, “My arm got broken” or “Someone else broke my arm”, but you wouldn’t be able to say, “I broke my arm” as if it was an intentional action.

English is unusual in that English speakers don’t very strongly distinguish between accidental events and intentional events, while other languages do distinguish more strongly. Spanish and Japanese are languages that make that distinction more clearly. If someone intentionally breaks the cup, you’ll say, “She broke the cup”, but if someone accidentally does it, then a description is more likely something like, “The cup broke” or “The cup broke itself.”

We asked whether this would matter for how people remember events that they witness. I’ll tell you about two sets of studies, one was done in my lab and the other was done at a different lab. I think they make very nice complementary points.

In our lab, we show people events that were accidental or intentional. One of two guys did things like pop balloons and break pencils and so on. Later, we tested people’s memory. We would show these guys kind of like in a police lineup. We’d ask, “If you remember, which guy did it?”

What we found was when the events were intentional, everyone remembered who did it really well. So everyone would have described that event as, “He popped the balloon,” for example. All of the people we tested – Spanish speakers, English speakers, Japanese speakers – remembered who did it really well.

When it came to accidents, a different picture emerged. For accidental events, English speakers still would have said, “He popped the balloon” but Spanish and Japanese speakers were more likely to say something like, “The balloon popped” or “The balloon popped itself.” What we found was that, in those cases, when the event was accidental, Spanish speakers were actually less likely to remember who did it.

Now, another group tested English and Spanish speakers but instead of asking, “Do you remember who did it?” they asked, “Do you remember if it was an accident?” This was a beautiful complement to our study, because if you’re not paying attention to who did it, what are you paying attention to? What are Spanish speakers encoding about the event? So when you ask, “Do you remember if it was an accident?” now it’s the English speakers who can’t remember whether or not it was an accident, but the Spanish speakers remember much better.

So that shows you that people are allocating their attention differently depending on the language they speak and the normal patterns in that language. English speakers care about who did it and they don’t distinguish very strongly whether or not something was an accident, either in their language or in memory. Whereas, Spanish speakers care whether or not it was an accident. They mark that in the language and they also remember that. But when it was an accident, their attention is more on the fact that it was an accident, the process by which it emerged and less on who did it.

Russ: There is another aspect of your work that I find intriguing. I believe this came out of work you did in Australia among Aboriginals. You note that a part of their language – and correct me if I’m wrong in this – and of their culture has to do with always being able to orient one’s self in relation to north, east, south, west, and so forth, and that when they sat down to draw a timeline, if they were facing south, the timeline would go left to right, and if they were facing north, it would go right to left. Is that a fair summary?

Lera: Yes, you did a great job.

Russ: Thanks. So what that implies for me is that people within the same language grouping would experience events differently depending on how their language orients them to those events.

For the Aboriginals that you studied, the way that they made meaning around time in this example would depend on how they were oriented, how they were positioned in relationship to the world in which they lived. Is there something about our language that causes us to understand our relationship to each other and our worlds differently based on the character of that language?

Lera: I want to first note that one way of describing these results is the way that you just described it – these cultural speakers, this Aboriginal group, organize time differently depending on which way they are facing. That’s one way of describing the results. But there is another way of describing the results, which is to say, actually, they organized time the same way regardless of which way they are facing. Time for them always goes from east to west. It’s we who make time go in different directions based on the frivolous fact of which way we happen to be facing at any given moment. So if I’m facing one way, then time goes in that direction but if I turn my body slightly, then the direction of time changes.

So I’m making time chase me around every time I turn my body. That’s very egocentric of me. I just wanted to point out that whether we think of something as different or the same changes depending on the perspective that we take, whether we take it as being the central thing that should remain the same as the body or the central thing that should remain the same as the landscape. For the Aboriginals, the thing that’s central and that should remain the same is the landscape and for us it’s the body. When we think about what they’re doing and when we say, “Oh, wow. They do it differently depending on how they’re facing?” and that’s exactly what they think of us.

Russ: Is there any parallel to that in English that you can point to?

Lera: Let me make a broader point, which is, any finding of a cross-linguistic difference is not a finding about just one group of people. It’s a finding about both groups of people, right? It’s not the case that we see the world the way it really is but then other people are influenced by their language and culture.

We are all influenced by language and culture and so when we go and find folks who think differently from us, we are not just finding, “Oh, look at those other people who think weirdly.” What we’re doing is we are finding how we think and why we think that way.

So we may have had lots of explanations for why English speakers organize time the way they do. We could’ve said, “Well, it’s based in biology.” Maybe there is something about the way our brain is wired innately that makes us do it that way. Or we may say it’s based in physical experience. We might say, “Well, of course, the future has to be in front of you and the past has to be behind you because we walk forward, not backwards.”

People have made all of these kinds of arguments but in fact we find cultures that differ on these scores and that requires us to revise our hypotheses about why we do the things that we do and why we think the things that we think. So for me, this cross-cultural discovery has to be symmetrical. It’s not just that you’re learning about some other culture, you are also learning a lot about yourself. It’s putting them nearer to your own thoughts and saying, “Well, why do you have this idea?”

This is the way that I flipped your observation. For the Aboriginals, it is really depending on how they are facing. That said, we could just as easily describe it the other way. That’s a way of shifting your own frame of mind and saying, “Ah, well, what I think to be universally the same is actually not universally the same. There are other ways of thinking about it.”

Russ: That is, in effect, a step away from kind of an intellectual imperialism.

Lera: Yes, it is a step away from intellectual imperialism. but it’s a hard step to take because all of us are naïve realists. What I mean by that is that we all intuitively believe that the world is the way that it appears to us, that we perceive reality. And so when you find that someone else thinks differently, the first natural thing to assume is that they are wrong, that they just haven’t perceived the world the right way, or they haven’t been exposed to the right facts, or they are biased by something. Those are the only explanations, because you believe that you see things the way they are.

The next step in understanding a difference is to say, “Well, wait a second. None of us see the world the way it really is.” We’re all doing a lot of constructing and construing in order to make sense of the information that we get. And so, I see it this way because I’ve been exposed to these patterns of language, these patterns of culture and this is my history of experience. Based on that history, this is my interpretation, but based on a different history, you might come to a different interpretation.

I think that’s the hardest thing to learn. It’s very easy to note other people elsewhere think differently. It’s much harder to then turn the mirror on yourself and say, “Well, that tells me something about how I think also.”

Russ: That calls to mind the work in adult development psychology, whether we are talking about stage models or something else. We’ve got people like Loevinger, Kegan, Graves, Perry and a bunch of others who have come up with stage models of development. Some people have used those models, not so much in terms of a hierarchy of excellence, but as a developmental process that one goes through. I’m wondering if there is any connection at all that you have been making in your own work with any of these stage models of adult development theory.

Lera: I haven’t read that literature, but it sounds interesting. I should take a look.

Russ: The fundamental notion is that we may understand things differently  depending on which model you are looking at – our ego development, the development of our value systems, locus of control, cognitive development, and so on. These will influence and perhaps even shape the meaning making that we get from any given situation and our relationship to it.

One of the reasons why the field of adult development psychology interests me so much is that when I’m looking at the subject of leadership in organizations, the multiple worldviews that you were talking about or the multiple ways of making meaning and sense out of things are present in human systems. Questions come up about how does that influence the way we understand our roles and our relationships and in a social context of any kind, be they political societies, social systems, organizations, that we’re going to shape our behaviors, if you will, by the way we understand those relationships.

I’m wondering if there is anything in your work that has tapped into, not only how we make meaning, but how we manage our relationships with each other around that.

Lera: It’s a very interesting question. As with most interesting questions, it’s very hard to make precise measurements about it. With this question and many others, some of the most interesting questions are the ones that we haven’t made as much progress on just because it’s so much harder to make measurements. But I hope that this is something that comes more into empirical focus in the next decade or so of research.

There has been a little bit of work on more social aspects of language as they’re encoded in grammar and the effects they might have. For example, there’s a study comparing Italian and Japanese speakers on what they remember about other people. One difference between Italian and Japanese is that Japanese requires you use different forms of address depending on whether a person is younger or older than you. Whereas for Italians, it does have informal and formal distinctions. It’s not quite so age-based and there’s a much broader range of people around your age that you don’t have to worry if they’re a year older or a year younger.

In these studies, people are introduced to a fictitious person and asked to write a letter to this person. The person is either a little bit older or a little bit younger than the participant. They are also given other information about that person. Later, their memory is tested for what they can remember. For example, can you remember their age? Can you remember their favorite number? Can you remember something else about them?

What the researchers found was that the Japanese speaking participants were much more likely to remember someone’s age than they were to remember their favorite number. Those numbers were perfectly matched across conditions. Also, the Japanese participants were more likely to confuse people that fell into the same age group, so people who were older were much more likely to be confused for one another and people who were younger were much more likely to be confused for one another. But you didn’t get cross category confusion as much. For Italian speakers, the age wasn’t a very important predictor of memory so they didn’t remember the age any better than they remembered someone’s favorite number, for example.

This is a very interesting study but a very first step toward understanding what is it that you pay attention to when you engage with another person? What do you need to know about them? In some cultures, you really need to know someone’s age when you’re going to address them. You just can’t start to formulate a proper sentence without knowing their age. I think this work is just starting out in this domain. I think it will be very interesting as it unfolds over the next decade. It’s just the early days.

Russ: Has anybody been doing that type of work in relationship to things like issues of power and authority?

Lera: There is a lot of work on power and language within English. So definitely, people have looked at how power is communicated in linguistic devices. There hasn’t been a lot of work done across languages on it.

Russ: You did an article with Paul Thibodeau of Stanford on metaphor: “Metaphors can influence not just what solution comes to mind first but also which solution people think is best even when given the opportunity to explicitly compare alternatives.” Can you say a little more about the importance of metaphor in the ways that social relationships and meaning making occur?

Lera: One of the reasons I got interested in metaphor is the observation by George Lakoff and others that it is very hard to talk about anything that’s complex or abstract without using lots of metaphors. If you look at how people talk about social issues or about anything they don’t have direct physical experience with, they will use lots and lots of metaphors.

If we’re talking about the economy, we may say that we need to jump start the economy, or the economy is on the rocks, or George Bush drove the economy into a ditch. Here are the keys. These are all metaphors. They are not just ways of talking. There really isn’t another way of talking that doesn’t use metaphors. And so the question became: what does that mean? Why are we using all these metaphors? Are they playing a psychological role or are they just ways of talking?

One possibility is that they are just ways of talking with no consequences for thinking and that the only reason they show up is that we have a finite set of words and we need to talk about an infinite set of things. So we use the words and the phrases that you have to talk about new things. It may sound like a metaphor but it really isn’t.

We started asking questions about whether metaphors really do play a psychological role. Certainly, when it comes to social issues that are complex like understanding the world economy, or the effects that a particular policy might have, or understanding the health system, or understanding a problem like a crime, any one of these problems has so many different components and so many different forces. No single individual will understand the whole system like that. These systems are far, far too complex. Even experts don’t fully understand the system. Certainly, regular folks who are non-experts don’t understand systems. And yet all of us are called to make decisions on these questions by voting or by giving political donations and other ways of expressing our opinion. How do regular folks get purchased, a conceptual purchase, into these questions?

One thing that metaphors allow us to do is to ground our understanding of something that’s complex or abstract in something that’s more concrete and more familiar. For example, if we say the economy stalls, we need to jump start the economy. We can understand why jump starting a car would work, and this frames the economic condition as a particular kind of problem. There is a jolt of energy that would be required and then things will return to normal. So you can use a metaphor like that to try to push through a short term stimulus plan, for example, and say we’ll just inject this money to the economy right now and that will get us going. You can understand what it means to jump start a car and then you can use the analogy to extract useful inferences for thinking about what will happen to the economy if the stimulus plan is adopted.

But of course, someone could argue that that’s the wrong metaphor. The economy is not a stalled car. In fact, it’s a sick patient. It’s a patient that will require continuous long-term care, a whole lot of exercise and a whole lot of other things, if it is to recover. The recovery will be slow and it will require a lot of work. In that case, people will say, no, this idea that a single jolt of energy is going to get us out of the situation is a waste and a bad metaphor. Instead, there is a different metaphor that we should be thinking about. We should be thinking about making long-term investments, committing to long-term courses of treatment, and we do long-term austerity measures – whatever metaphor you choose.

So these metaphors do have consequences. They can have consequences for how we reason. What Paul and I were interested in is how even minimal metaphors, just a word here or there that invokes a particular metaphor of a frame, can invoke a whole framework for thinking about something and lead people to make different decisions about what they think is a good policy or not a good policy.

We chose the example of crime. We told people either that crime is a beast ravaging the city or that crime is a virus ravaging the city of Addison. Then after we told them one of those two things, we gave them lots and lots of statistics about murder rates in Addison. All of that information is exactly the same in the two conditions. The only difference is whether we said it was a beast or a virus that was ravaging.

What we predicted was that people took these metaphors seriously. They would want to treat the problem of crime like a virus in the virus case and like a beast in the beast case.

If you have a literal beast on the loose in the city, people will say you should send out a hunting party, hunt it down, and either cage it or kill it. Metaphorically, that would be to send out more police and imprison everyone who’s an offender. So these are punishment and enforcement solutions – more police, more jails, harsher sentences, that kind of stuff.

If it’s a virus, you can say that if there’s a literal virus breaking out in the city, what should people do? People will say, well, if it’s a virus, then first you want to diagnose where is it coming from, what’s the root cause of it, and then try to inoculate the population to make sure that it doesn’t spread. Do something to make everyone else healthy and resistant to it.

Metaphorically, that would be something like think systemically. Don’t think about just a particular disease agent but try to make the community stronger. Improve the economy. Improve after school programs so that kids aren’t running around. After school, there’s nothing for them to do. These would be the systemic solutions that can inoculate the community against threats.

That’s actually what we found. So if you tell people crime is a beast, they’ll say send out more police, more jails, harsher sentences. If you say crime is a virus, they’ll say try to do something to improve the economy, to improve access to education and after school programs, things like this.

Then we wondered just whether this is something that’s the first thing that comes to mind. If people were able to compare alternatives would they think differently? And so instead of just asking people, “What should you do about crime?”, we gave them a bunch of options. Some of those options were enforcing a punishment and some were more systemic. We found that even when people were able to compare the options, they ended up selecting options that were consistent with the metaphor.

What was interesting was that no one thought the metaphor had affected them. When we asked people, “Of those paragraphs that you read, what were the things that affected your decision?” everyone would underline a fact. For example, they would say, “Well, these crime rates were the things that really made me think the way that I did.” Almost nobody thought the metaphor was important, but in fact it was having this effect on their decisions.

Russ: In the field of leadership studies, Barbara Kellerman at Harvard noted that there were at least 1,500 definitions of leadership and 44 theories of leadership. I think she missed a couple of the theories, but you get the picture. Do you think that terms we use all the time and in our social systems like “leadership” and “leaders” and the like, can we treat those as metaphors or are they really something different?

Lera: Well, certainly, it’s not surprising that an abstract term like “leadership” would have many different uses and would take on many different meanings depending on context and patterns of use.

Russ: Exactly.

Lera:  I think that’s true for any complex term. What’s interesting is to think about whether there are meaningful families of relationships among those uses in the context of some structure that emerges within those many contexts. It’s not just an infinite soup of possibilities, but there are some that are more frequent. There are some that are more similar to others and so on. So it’s interesting to look for any emergent structure.

To the extent that any particular kind of talk about leadership is metaphorical or not, of course, depends on the particular construction that people use. Do people think of leadership as literally leading someone down a path? That would be a metaphor, right? So if that kind of language, that kind of motion along a path, language or spatial relationships like being in front or being ahead or something like that emerge, then clearly someone is invoking a metaphorical understanding about leadership and they’re hoping that those metaphors help clarify or solidify an understanding of what leadership is. But it’s hard to know without looking at the precise language in each case.

Russ: An example from another culture is that in Mandarin, I believe, the term “leadership” comes from the notion of the sleeve of a jacket. The sleeve guides you in putting on the jacket. As such it might imply that leading is like providing a path for others to follow. I’m really curious about how those related meanings that are attached to concepts also influence how people relate to notions like “leading,” “leadership” and “leader”.

Lera: It poses a lot of interesting hypotheses, but then there is the work of doing the empirical research to find out whether these things really matter or not.

Russ: Are you optimistic about the prospects for that kind of development in your field?

Lera: Yes, I really am. The most fun place to be for me as an experimental psychologist is at the edge of a question. It’s very interesting that currently we don’t know how to measure it. That’s the most fun place. If you already know how to measure something, then you’re just churning through and doing the studies. But if you haven’t yet figured out how to measure something, that’s the most fun part. I think we are due for a couple of cool discoveries in new methods and new insights in the next decade or so.

Russ: And what’s next for you?

Lera: I’m starting to do work on social relationships as their mark in language — so looking at the way people are required to talk about other people. I’m also curious about how we think about internal states – how we think about thinking and feeling. Those are the directions that I’m thinking in right now. They’re challenging and that’s what makes it fun.

Russ: And they certainly are representative of the challenge around measurement. Well, is there anything I haven’t asked you that you wished I had, Lera?

Lera: No, I think you’ve covered a lot of ground.

Russ: I want to thank you very much, Lera. This has been both enlightening and inspiring to talk with you. I think that the subject of language and leadership is a very high potential for the kind of difficulty in measurement that you’re talking about. If you have a graduate student who is interested in the subject, I hope you will encourage them to go down that route. In any case, thank you very much. It has been a pleasure and I look forward to reading more about your work down the road.

Lera:Thank you so much. It’s been really fun to chat. I’ve really enjoyed your questions.




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