The Science of Comprehension

Part VII

When the Metaphor is Wrong

Cognitive Science shows that metaphors don't just help us understand abstract concepts, it turns out metaphors are our understanding of abstract concepts. They are what we use when we think about things. They are what we use to reason with. All well and good,... unless the metaphor happens to be wrong. Using an incorrect metaphor to reason with can cause us to make poor, even disastrous decisions.

Here’s one example (the only example I know of so far, so we’ll go with it). Consider the political difference between Progressives and Conservatives. Many people use the mental image of a continuous line, with progressive views on the left and conservative views on the right:

 PROGRESSIVE  <------------------->

This is actually a metaphor we use to help us understand the abstract concept of Progressives vs. Conservatives.1 Progressives are on the left, Conservatives are on the right, and there is a continuum of opinions between left and right. Reasoning using this conceptualization gives people the idea that somewhere in the middle is a good balance, where we find people who are neither fanatically way too conservative nor fanatically way too progressive.

Turns out this metaphor is wrong. There is no continuum between progressive and conservative thought. There are simply two very different modes of thought: there’s the progressive mode of thought, and there’s the conservative mode of thought. There is nothing in between. A better way to visualize this would be:

 PROGRESSIVE  <....v...

Progressives have a particular way of reasoning about the world. Conservatives have a strikingly different way of reasoning about the world. They are two strikingly different ways of reasoning about the world—two strikingly different modes of thought used to make decisions and determine what one should do.

One of the breakthroughs in Cognitive Science was discovering that there is a common thought process behind all progressive views on all the various seemingly completely unrelated issues, and likewise there is a strikingly different common thought process behind all conservative views on all the various seemingly completely unrelated issues.2

Using the incorrect metaphor of a continuum, people may reason that to gain some votes of voters on the other side we should move towards the center. But the metaphor is wrong! There is no continuum. There is no center. What “moving toward the center” ends up doing is accepting the views of the other side on some of the issues. This is exactly the wrong thing to do, as it just reinforces the other side’s mode of thought.

Using an incorrect metaphor to reason with can cause people to make poor, even disastrous decisions. By learning about metaphors and how we use them to think and reason about abstract concepts, we can be more consciously alert to the possibility that the metaphor we are using may be wrong. There is also an even greater possible benefit — it may actually be possible to trace and comprehend the thought process of someone else who thinks differently than we do. This is the hope offered by the new emerging 21st-Century Enlightenment.

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1. The spectrum metaphor. The "political spectrum."
2. George Lakoff, The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain (2008). The last chapter, which contains no politics, is an overview of the New 21st-Century Enlightenment we are entering. This chapter really is superb, destined to be a classic that changes our philosophical understanding of the world. And since philosophy determines government, politics is a natural field to use for examples. This book is like Isaac Newton's Principia. It's full of new knowledge, not about what we think, but how we think. How we go about understanding and reasoning abstract concepts. If I tried to summarize the book I'd end up quoting the entire book. It really is that good.

—David Deley
March 2009