Constraints on Sociocognitive Metaphors 7 pages

Sociocognitive Metaphors

Constraints on Sociocognitive Metaphors

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What prompts people to describe aspects of their interpersonal relationships with terms such as “warm” and “close” and others as “cold” and “distant”? Why are individuals inclined to place “more powerful others higher and less powerful others lower in hierarchical structures?” (IJzerman & Koole, 2011). What is meant when individuals engage in a “heavy” discussion? And why do individuals refer to behavior determined to be morally reprehensible as “dirty”? Are these just figures of speech or is there a greater psychological significance to the connectivity between perceptual dimensions, such as temperature, weight, cleanliness, verticality, and abstract constructs?

Inquiries regarding the grounding of social cognition in sensorimotor systems have become the focus of increased theoretical and empirical efforts over the past decades in linguistics, psychology and other scholarly disciplines. Theorists, traditionally, have assumed that social perceivers rely on disembodied, abstract schemas or categories that structure individuals’ interpretation of social information (Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Macrae & Bodenhausen, 2000; Wyer & Srull, 1989). Some argue, however, that individuals routinely draw on their concrete bodily experiences in constructing their social reality (Cohen, Leung, & IJzerman, 2009; Niedenthal, Barsalou, Winkielman, Krauth-Gruber, & Ric, 2005; Smith & Semin, 2004). Landau, Meier, and Kiefer (2010), posited a metaphor-enriched approach to social cognition that treats metaphors as a significant component of the conceptual system that individuals use to not just express but also understand abstract concepts like morality, power and love through their experiences. Conceptual metaphors may then allow people to make sense of the complexities of life by allowing the use of knowledge from a relatively concrete domain in understanding a more abstract concept (IJzerman & Koole, 2011).

There is general concurrence with regard to the work Landau et al. (2010) offered, however, the following will examine whether greater theoretical attention to the origin and nature of metaphorical representations in social cognition is warranted, and whether the focus on top down knowledge structures have ignored the importance of bottom up shaping of metaphors (IJzerman & Koole, 2011).

The Functionality of Sociocognitive Metaphors

Traditional literature on schema has devoted a significant amount of attention to the notion that schemas exert a top down influence on the processing of social information by allowing individuals to “go beyond the information given” in understanding the world (Stapel & Koomen, 2000). Although Landau et al.’s approach is different from traditional schema models in some important aspects, their posited metaphor enriched approach, nonetheless, retains a class emphasis on top down effects of knowledge structures. Particularly, conceptual metaphors are assumed “a structured framework for reasoning about, interpreting, and evaluating information related to the target concept: (p. 1046). As such, conceptual metaphors are assumed to operate in the same way and use the same representational format as those of traditional schemas, even if metaphors represent a situation in which properties of the “schema” are rendered from a domain that is semantically unrelated (IJzerman & Koole, 2011).

Indeed if sociocognitive metaphors operate like traditional schemas, then traditional sociocognitive theories regarding knowledge structures may possibly be applied to them which then lead to a host of hypotheses that are testable (Smith, 1998). Conceptual metaphors can vary in chronic vs. temporary accessibility and applicability in a particular situation (Higgins, 1996). Conceptual metaphors, like schemas, may also act as energy conserving devices by allowing individuals to quickly grasp notions that are abstract (Macrae, Bodenhausen, Milne & Jetten, 1994). Further, conceptual metaphors may spontaneously influence social cognition in an unintentional, efficient, non-conscious and uncontrollable way (Bargh & Chartrand, 2000). As such, the majority of empirical findings regarding schemas in principle, may be applicable to sociocognitive metaphors and could be generative for nascent research.

However, sociocognitive metaphor theoretical implications may extend further if there is consideration given to metaphors from the perspective of grounded cognition which “reflects the assumption that cognition is typically grounded in multiple ways including simulations, situated action, and on occasion, bodily states” (Barsalou, 1999, p. 619). Grounded cognition theories have the ability to readily accommodate the top down effects of conceptual metaphors on social cognition and not require that these metaphors rely on information that is abstract from the source domain. Barsalou’s (1999) perceptual systems theory posits that perceptual simulation involves partial running of sensorimotor systems in a top down way. From this vantage point, effects of sociocognitive metaphors that are related to sentiments such as “heavy discussions” and “interpersonal warmth” may be due in part to situated actions or perceptual simulation processes (IJzerman & Koole, 2011). If correct, the term conceptual metaphors can be considered a misnomer for sociocognitive metaphors as basic sociocognitive metaphors and extremely pervasive metaphors may be minimally associated with schematic knowledge or abstract concepts.

Conceptual Metaphors and Bottom-Up Constraints

How then do pervasive sociocognitive metaphors like “dirty tricks,” “deep feelings, and “high and mighty” develop? According to Landau et al. (2010), an initial source of sociocognitive metaphors is the individual’s ingenuity; one who makes creative leaps in conveying the distinct meanings of his or her personal experiences. Although there is much scholarly agreement with regard to this concept, as the human mind is capable of very impressive creative feats, there I also doubt as to whether individual creativity is a mainstay of familiar sociocognitive metaphors (IJzerman & Koole, 2011). If in fact, every individual would creatively and uniquely invent his or her own group of metaphors, there would be an expectation for individuals to develop a much higher idiosyncratic group of metaphors. As such, individual creativity as the explanation for such common metaphors that influence social cognition seems implausible.

Another posited source of sociocognitive metaphors lies in the scaffolding theories domain, which suggests that non-metaphoric associations between the bodily and social experiences form the foundation of conceptual metaphors in later life (Mandler, 2004; Piaget & Inhelder, 1969; Williams, Huang, & Bargh, 2009). For example, younger children are likely to experiences states of physical warmth and affection together, and this association may form the foundation for metaphors regarding interpersonal warmth. The idea of scaffolding tends to resonate with Lakoff and Johnson (1999), who maintain that individuals build immediate conceptual mappings unconsciously and inevitably through neural connections. Through processes of conflation (Johnson, 1997), associations between various domains are subsequently mapped onto these conceptual metaphors. Processes of scaffolding are likely to be critical to the analysis of sociocognitive metaphors through the constraints this modality imposes on the formation of metaphors. Nonetheless, Landau et al. (2010) give little credence to scaffolding.

Through the intrinsic relationship with social affection, physical warmth becomes part and parcel to the fibers of individual’s social relationships. In relationship where warmth is most relevant is described as communal sharing relationships by A.P. Fiske (1991, 1992, 2004); an altruistic relationship most often found with close kin. Communal sharing relationships are marked and created through physical actions that generate a perception of a social body that is merged. Moreover, communal sharing relationships rely on an individual’s feeling of oneness that are formed through bonding experiences that connect with the body such as touching, sharing of bodily fluids, nursing, and synchronous movement. Fiske (1992) argues that communal sharing relationships find their foundation in evolved and innate mechanisms, or relational models that offer individuals coordinated social interaction.

Moreover, Fiske (1992) identified three relational models that can be located universally across cultures and are more likely to be grounded in “innate biological mechanisms” (p. 34): (1) relationships that are based on authority ranking focus on differences that are ordered and give individuals a chance to know and recognize relative positioning in linear hierarchy; (2) relationships based on equality matching direct individuals to monitor additive differences in order to achieve and maintain balance. These relationships are considered to be typified by interactions of turn taking and reciprocity. (3) relationships based on market pricing foster the use of abstract ratios to compare commodities that are otherwise incomparable.

As such, relational models are considered significant for social cognition as they allow individuals to achieve a consensus in orchestrating and constructing their conceptual experiences (IJzerman & Koole, 2011). These basic relational structures foster a rich coordinated methodology of interacting with one’s social environment. For example, relationships based on communal sharing are grounded in experiences of physical distance (William & Bargh, 2008) and physical warmth (IJzerman & Semin, 2010) as well as synchrony (Hove & Risen, 2009). Further, relational structures like communal sharing are then mapped onto the body’s basic systems such as physical warmth that are intrinsically meaningful and motivating. Given the aforementioned, relational models may offer a plausible explanation as to why some “social meanings are likely to be culturally wide-spread or universal” (Landau et al., 2010, p. 160).

Relational models may offer an explanation of individual differences in what is meant with sociocognitive metaphors. Attachment theorists have demonstrated that from an individual’s earliest interactions with their caregivers, children develop generalized internal models that are critical in infancy and adulthood on how to behave toward themselves and others. These working models are contingent on the caregiver’s reliability. Therefore, differences in the reliability of these relationships that are so meaningful may posit substantial individual differences in style of attachment and internal working models of attachment Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). Infants that are securely attached, then, expect their figures of attachment to be readily available and are quickly and easily comforted if upset. Conversely, those infants that are not securely attached do not share this level of expectation. Among adults, secure attachments provide a base for caregiving and compassion (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2005).


What then causes individuals to describe his or her reality in terms of noncommensurate physical qualities like cleanliness, verticality, weight or temperature? Landau et al. (2010) have provided a convincing argument that these kinds of sociocognitive metaphors are reflective of general basic processes that allow individuals to make the world make sense. However, when looking from the contextual framework of grounded cognition, the psychological importance of sociocognitive metaphors exceeds mental representation and even language. There are some sociocognitive metaphors that seem to provide greater universality that finds its foundation in bodily constraints and schemas that are relational, rooted in historic brain structures. While other sociocognitive metaphors are different across cultures but somehow emerge from very specific “cultural differences in embodiment” (IJzerman & Koole, 2011).

Thus, grounding sociocognitive metaphors may be increasingly assistive in elucidating motivational significance. The majority of the most frequently used sociocognitive metaphors that people are passionate and care deeply about such as morality, self, power and love. From a grounded cognition perspective, this is not coincidental. Sociocognitive metaphors, therefore, do not exist simply for the sake of mental representation alone. They exist for action as well. What makes metaphors meaningful may be directly correlated and linked to what motivates an individual. Being psychological and physically close to other individuals may be especially important in times when individuals think about the self as powerful and may be especially important as individuals prepare to use physical force (Schubert & Koole, 2009). As such, a grounded cognition perspective may offer a plausible explanation for the enduring psychological appeal of sociocognitive metaphors (IJzerman & Koole, 2011).


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