What can metaphors tell us about personality?

Figure 1. Hostility Ratings for Countries with Red and Blue Flags.Although red-flagged nations are not more hostile, it could still be that red preferences or biases distinguish more and less hostile people within a country. This was the focus of research by Fetterman, Liu and Robinson (in press). Study 1 asked people whether they liked the color blue or red better. Red-preferring individuals scored higher in interpersonal hostility than blue-preferring individuals. Study 2 asked people to identify degraded patches as red or blue and found that people who more hostile were biased to see the color red more often. Study 3 extended Study 2 by comparing biases to see the colors red and green. Study 4 returned to the simple color preference question of Study 1 and found that red-preferring people were more hostile in their social behavior (e.g., by rejecting a monetary offer in order to punish another person). Thus, people who have red-related preferences and biases do appear more hostile and we might be more wary of their potential behaviors for this reason. Indeed, our potential friends or colleagues might be asked how much they like the color red.

In another preference-related investigation, Meier et al. (2012) focused on metaphors linking agreeable personalities to sweet tastes. A first study established that people claiming to like sweet foods (relative to other tastes) were judged to be more agreeable. The second study was particularly interesting. In this study, people were asked how much they liked foods that were sweet (e.g., ice cream), bitter (e.g., celery), salty (e.g., pretzels), sour (e.g., cottage cheese), and spicy (e.g., salsa). People who liked sweet foods, in particular, scored higher on the trait of agreeableness. A representative result of this type is displayed in Figure 2. A third study found that people who liked sweet foods to a greater extent were more helpful in their behavior, for example by volunteering for a city-wide flood cleanup effort in Fargo, North Dakota. When in need, then, you might be better off turning to your friend that always orders dessert rather than your friend that never does.

WFigure 2. Levels of Agreeableness as a Function of Liking Sweet Foods (Low versus High).hy do preference-related judgments work in capturing differences between people, though? We suggest that people are drawn toward experiences (e.g., colors or tastes) that metaphorically fit their personalities (Robinson & Fetterman, in press; Swann, 1992). Accordingly, hostile people like red precisely because: (a) they are hostile and (b) hostility is metaphorically red. Similarly, agreeable people like sweet tastes because: (a) they are agreeable and (b) agreeableness is metaphorically sweet. If so, preference-related judgments can be recommended in future studies of metaphor and personality as well. For example, we should expect (and we have found) that depressed people prefer “dark” to “light”, consistent with prominent metaphors for depression (e.g., “being in a dark place”).

The self’s metaphoric location

Most people feel as if the “self” resides somewhere in the body. However, the body has many different parts. Which of these do we associate with the self? From Plato onward, two particular body parts and their metaphoric functions have been highlighted (Swan, 2009). Somewhat simplistically stated, the heart is emotional and the head is logical. There are many metaphoric phrases of this type. To “follow one’s heart” is to follow one’s emotional sentiments, whereas to “have one’s head on straight” is to approach interactions in a rational, if not logical, manner. A person “has a big heart” to the extent that his/her positive feelings for others are pronounced, is “in one’s head” to the extent that he/she is somewhat detached, and many phrases metaphorically pit these two body parts against each other (e.g., “my heart says yes, but my head says no”).

Given the prominence of such metaphors, it seemed potentially useful to ask people whether they conceptualize themselves more as heart- or head-related entities. A simple forced choice question of this type was created. Subsequently, answers to this question were found to be important to the individual difference literature (Fetterman & Robinson, in press). Across studies, approximately 50% of people chose the heart as the locus of the self and 50% chose the head. Emotionality is higher among females (Robinson & Clore, 2002) and, consistent with this point, more females than males thought the self was located in the heart.

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