Your mother, metaphors, and other monkey business: How experiences of physical warmth shape how we think about relationships

Thoughts, metaphors, and feelings

Psychology has now amassed an enormous literature on how people think. As a very brief summary of some decades of research, we can conclude that people make use of schemas, which contain the properties about specific experiences in memory. Schemas are mental representations, which represent some aspect of the world. For example, you may have built a schema in your mind about the elderly, which are often characterized as needing help, slow-moving, and so forth (we often refer to these schemas as stereotypes). Social psychologists have been very successful in activating the properties of schemas (this process is called priming). For example, John Bargh and his colleagues (1996) primed students with the stereotype of elderly (through words like Florida, old, lonely, et cetera), which in turn caused the students to walk slower (though this effect did not replicate with psychology students in Belgium, see Doyen, Klein, Pichon, & Cleeremans, 2010).

Now what does this have to do with the metaphor story? Psychologist Mark Landau and his colleagues (2010) recently proposed that we can analyze people’s conceptual thoughts by examining the properties of two different schemas in order to understand much more complex concepts, through a process called metaphoric transfer strategy. Through this strategy, we can come to understand how people combine different schemas through so-called conceptual metaphors (see Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). Conceptual metaphors combine the physical experiences of one concept with the more abstract properties of another concept. For instance, the expression “Friday is far away” may seem natural, but actually reflects the use of a spatial description (distance) for a temporal property (the time until Friday). Thus, in order to understand some very complex ideas about time, we recruit the more intuitive concept of space (see Boroditsky & Ramscar, 2002, and Casasanto & Boroditsky, 2008, for more information on this idea).

Your mother, metaphor, and other matters

But why might people build up such associations? In building the case for conceptual metaphors, Lakoff and Johnson (1999) discuss the idea of primary metaphors. Because people may jointly express concepts like time and space in metaphors (e.g., like the earlier mentioned Friday being far away), they may acquire a very basic association between related concepts that one acquires early and often. Furthermore, such associations come to exist between abstract concepts (such as social phenomena) and more concrete experience (such as physiological states).

Let us now return to the subject of interpersonal warmth. Time and space are not the only concepts you experience jointly; the world is rich with examples of metaphoric transfer. The primary focus of our research has been on the relationship between physical warmth and feelings of affection. From the moment of your birth, you have experienced feelings of affection and physical warmth jointly – most likely beginning when your mother used to hold you. This is a very basic body-mind connection that has been recognized by many social psychologists.

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