Field of Science


When Psychologists Take Things Too Literally

Thankfully, in brainstorming meetings where I'm asked to "think outside the box," no one has ever put me in an actual box. That's not true of the undergrads who volunteered for a recent psychology study.

Angela Leung, a researcher in Singapore, and her colleagues in the United States were studying a phenomenon called "embodied cognition." The idea is that a brain can't help being influenced by the body it's stuck inside. Feelings can run backward: We might be smiling because we're happy, or we might feel happy because our face is being forced into a smile.

Researchers have extended this idea to figurative language. They've found that people who hold a hot cup of coffee judge others as having warmer personalities, compared to when they're holding an iced coffee. When people hold a heavy clipboard, they judge certain matters as weightier. After tasting a sweet food, people feel more agreeable and helpful--that is, sweeter.

The new study looked at a few different metaphors for creative thinking and problem solving. One experiment involved a 5-foot-by-5-foot box made out of cardboard and PVC piping. Subjects completed a word association test while sitting inside the box, outside of the box, or with the box nowhere in sight. The test presented sets of three words and asked for a fourth word that went with all of them. For example, the word that goes with the set measure, worm, and video is tape. (Subjects also filled out a claustrophobia questionnaire.)

Subjects who sat in the box performed as well on the test as those who never saw the box at all. But subjects who sat outside the box--witnessing themselves acting out the metaphor--did significantly better.

In another task, subjects were asked to raise their right hands out in front of them palm-up, as if declaring something to an audience. They held their left hands behind their backs. Then they were asked to think up creative new uses for a university building complex, continuing until they ran out of ideas.

Then subjects were asked either to switch hands, or to raise their right hands again. And surprise! They had to answer the same question about the university buildings. Those who got to switch hands came up with more ideas, and a greater variety of ideas, than those who kept their right hands raised the whole time.

Did you guess the metaphor? That one was on the one hand...on the other hand.

For a third metaphor, subjects were presented with stacks of round paper coasters cut in half. Some of the subjects had to pull pieces from both stacks and recombine them, while the other subjects just moved around the pieces of paper. Afterward, subjects did the same word-matching test from the box experiment, as well as a Lego creativity test.

The subjects all performed the same on the creativity task. But those who had recombined the coaster pieces did better on the word-association test, successfully drawing connections between the sets of words. The researchers say that's because the task got them to--did you figure this one out?--put two and two together.

I'm not sure I would have guessed that the halves of a paper circle signified "two and two." But the theory behind embodied cognition would say it doesn't matter whether you can tell what metaphor you're acting out. The connection exists, the authors say, because the metaphor comes from how we actually carry out that cognitive act in our brains. Maybe we call it "thinking outside the box" because, at some fundamental level, that's what our brains are really doing. We call it a metaphor, but maybe it's not.

This was an international study, but it would be interesting to see cross-cultural studies of embodied cognition. Is it universal to consider other people as "sweet" or "warm" or "icy"? Do people in every country really "think outside the box" and consider arguments "on the other hand"? If there are figures of speech that can be interpreted physically and that also vary between cultures, how do these play out in embodied cognition experiments?

On the other hand (!), if common metaphors do come from some deep cerebral place, then they should be universal. It would mean that whatever language our figures of speech come in, they're really translations of the same literal actions in our brains. At least that's how I'll explain it the next time I need to escape the four walls of a conference room.

Angela Leung, Suntae Kim, Evan Polman, See Lay, Link Qiu, Jack Goncalo, & Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks (2012). Embodied Metaphors and Creative "Acts" Psychological Science

Photo: Flickr/Ben McLeod 

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  1. In french, on the other hand becomes on the other side ( d'un coté ou d'un point de vue), out of the box becomes leaving paved trail ( sortir des sentiers battus)

  2. I like "leaving the paved trail"! Anyone else have non-English creativity metaphors to share?

    I thought that instead of "putting two and two together," the researchers also could have tried "connecting the dots."

    1. In german it's like this:

      -"on the one hand...on the other hand" becomes either "on the one side...on the other side", like in french, or "einerseits...andererseits" (= one-sided...other-sided)

      -"think outside the box" becomes "think around the edge" or "think across/diagonally"

      -"putting two and two together" becomes simply "counting two and two together"

  3. Interesting article - I was interested in reading the actual publication, but couldn't find it. Do you have a link?

  4. The journal Psychological Science hasn't published it yet, and I'm not sure what date it will come out. I got a PDF of the article by emailing the PR contact, Divya Menon (dmenon [at]

  5. I've found the actual article at the Cornell University ILR School

    The following link contains the abstract:

    And from there, the URL to the article itself:

    I'd like to link to the article from my Tumblr account, but think that linking to your blog post initially will work best, as I like your insight. Do you mind if I do that? I do intend to include the two links I've shared here, as well, at the end of my post on Tumblr after some of my own words on the topic.

  6. No problem. Thanks for sharing the links!

  7. In case you're curious, this is the link to my blog post about this article. It links back to your post here.


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