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Metaphor & Thought

Metaphors suffuse the language we use to talk about complex issues. Political elections are WAR (campaigns between political enemies fighting over battleground states); crime is a VIRUS (plaguing communities) and a BEAST (preying on communities); and the global pandemic is a STORM (a tsunami that has leveled cities around the world). 

Are these metaphors merely a tool of communication or do they serve a conceptual function as well? That is, do we use metaphors to ground our reasoning, decisions, and actions on complex sociopolitical problems?

Our lab has found that metaphors powerfully shape our thinking about a range of important sociopolitical issues. Our work also highlights factors that moderate the power of metaphor to shape thinking.

Recent reviews of this work can be found here and here.

Watch Paul Thibodeau give a talk on the role of metaphor in thinking at the United States Institute of Peace.


Systems Thinking


Systems thinking emphasizes that causes and their effects are often less straightforward than one might intuitively expect. A systems thinking mindset is thought to facilitate the understanding of systems and events as emerging from a dynamic array of interrelated factors, which can have both expected and unintended consequences. Core tenets of the construct that are widely endorsed, include (a) an emphasis on holistic, rather than reductionist, thinking, (b) an expanded conception of causality (a vast array of interacting variables are often responsible for specific outcomes in complex systems), and (c) recognition that systems are constantly changing in predictable and unpredictable ways.

Our lab has worked to:

  • Develop tools to measure systems thinking - here

  • Test whether systems thinking is related to environmental concern - here.

  • Test whether certain types of interventions can increase systems thinking - here and here.

Read coverage of this research in the Washington Post

Word Aversion

To some people, the word "moist" sounds like finger nails scratching a chalkboard. What makes some words so cringeworthy? And why should we care?

Our lab has found that word aversion is grounded in the meaning of words, even though many people who experience the phenomena think it has something to do with the way the word sounds. Moist, for example, seems to be aversive because of an association to bodily function -- not because of the combination of the /oi/ vowel sound with the /st/ consonant sound.

  • Read the full study here or a shorter summary of the original work here

  • Read coverage of the study in the New York Times here.

  • Listen to an episode of the Subtitle podcast on the topic here.

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