I is an Other is published today…

… and here’s a little preview:

Metaphor lives a secret life all around us. We utter about one metaphor for every 10 to 25 words, or about six metaphors a minute. Metaphor conditions our interpretations of the stock market and, through advertising, it surreptitiously infiltrates our purchasing decisions. In the mouths of politicians, metaphor subtly nudges public opinion; in the minds of businesspeople, it spurs creativity and innovation. In science, metaphor is the preferred nomenclature for new theories and new discoveries; in psychology, it is the natural language of human relationships and emotions.

Metaphor is a way of thought long before it is a way with words.

New research in the social and cognitive sciences makes it increasingly plain that metaphor influences our attitudes, beliefs, and actions in surprising, hidden, and often oddball ways. Metaphor has finally leapt off the page and landed with a mighty splash right in the middle of our stream of consciousness. That impact is making a big splash in the field of psychology, through metaphor therapy.

For the rest of this piece, check out the book excerpt in Ode.

Want more? Buy I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World

Metaphor and Economics

On the Poetry website, Stephen T. Ziliak, a professor of economics at the Roosevelt University and author of The Cult of Statistical Significance, writes in “Haiku Economics: Money, metaphor, and the invisible hand“: “Perhaps it’s the economists who can learn the most from poets about precision and efficiency, about objectivity and maximization—the virtues, in other words, of value-free science.” The essay is about how the emotions and moral sentiments informed much of early economic theorizing, until these were replaced by the strictly rational and utilitarian. Now we’re seeing that trend reversed: the ‘rational actor’ theory of economics is being replaced by behavioral finance, which explores how feelings and irrational motivations prompt our financial decisions. Ziliak quotes the poet Etheridge Knight: “Generally speaking, a people’s metaphors and figures of speech will come out of their basic economy … If somebody lives near the ocean and they fish, their language will be full of those metaphors. If people are farmers, they will use that kind of figure of speech. Metaphors are alive. When they come into being, they are informed by the politics and the sociology and the economy of now. That’s how language is.”

Flick on the business news and you’re in for a smorgasbord of financial metaphors. Gasp in horror as the bear market grips Wall Street in its hairy paws; then cheer as fearless investors claw back gains. Watch in amazement as the NASDAQ vaults to new heights; then cringe as it slips, stumbles, and drops like a stone. Wait anxiously to see if the market will shake off the jitters, slump into depression, or bounce back. Finance and economics are the ultimate numbers games, yet commentators from Helsinki to Hong kong instinctively use metaphors to describe what’s going on.

These and other examples of the figurative language commonly used in economics (boom, bust, or bubble anyone?) demonstrate that metaphor is at work in this seemingly most stolid of disciplines. According to Deirdre N. McCloskey in The Rhetoric of Economics, “The most important example of economic rhetoric . . . is metaphor. Economists call them ‘models.’ To say that markets can be represented by supply and demand ‘curves’ is no less a metaphor than to say that the west wind is ‘the breath of autumn’s being.’ ”

Blatant self-promotional message:

Want to know more about metaphor? Check out I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, out on February 8.

Aphorisms via John Gross

John Gross, general all-around man of letters and compiler of the Oxford Book of Aphorisms (1983), passed away last month. Here is a fine appreciation from The Economist.

Metaphor and Military Campaign Names

Another article by the always-interesting Tom Jacobs in Miller-McCune, this time about metaphor and military campaign names. An analysis of the names given to Israeli military operations between 1948 and 2007 found that more than 60% of them alluded to either the natural world or the Bible, metaphorical names intended to suggest that the campaigns were either forces of nature or sanctioned by a higher power. “The basic theoretical supposition is that military naming is a simple and useful mechanism that might be employed to blur undesired aspects—such as the human and economical costs—associated with the respective practices,” writes Dalia Gavriely-Nuri of Hadassah College Jerusalem, Bar-Ilan University, the researcher who conducted the study. Operation First Rain and Operation Lightning Strike suggests these operations are an “inevitable, natural event, rather than one worthy of public examination.” Of course, this practice is widespread. Hezbollah’s Operation Truthful Promise is “a noble-sounding name for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers,” Jacobs cites Gavriely-Nuri as pointing out. Operation Enduring Freedom anyone?

Metaphor and The ‘Snow Farms’ Kenning

A while back I blogged about kennings, a kind of metaphor codified in The Prose Edda, the 13th century Icelandic epic by Snorri Sturluson. A kenning is a metaphor that replaces a proper name with a poetic description of what that person, place or thing is or does. For example, in ancient Icelandic verse, a sword is not a sword but an “icicle of blood”; a ship is not a ship but the “horse of the sea”; eyes are not eyes but the “moons of the forehead”. Though invented by ancient Icelandic bards, kennings are still quite common. We use them every day. Simple phrases such as ‘brain storm’ and ‘pay wall’ are basic kennings. And so is ‘snow farm,’ a kenning that’s increasingly used as a result of the recent spate of inclement weather. This NYTimes story describes the ‘snow farms’ springing up in Boston: “In Boston, where more than 60 inches have fallen since Christmas, plows are depositing excess at six ‘snow farms’—otherwise known as vacant lots—around the city … ‘We’re shoehorning the stuff anywhere we can put it,’ said John Isensee, the public works director in Lawrence, a seven-square-mile city that added eight inches to its snow piles Thursday.” Just goes to show you how in trying to describe something new we instinctively become 13th century Icelandic bards…

Blatant self-promotional message:

Want to know more about metaphor? Check out I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, out on February 8.

More on Metaphor and Obama’s Sputnik Analogy

In the State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama returned to a metaphor he has used before—the comparison of this moment in American history with the space race of the 1950s and ‘60s. “Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon … But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”

As described in my previous post on this metaphor, Obama clearly intended the metaphor to be an inspirational call to entrepreneurship and invention. But Sputnik is not the right metaphor for our current predicament, and it is unlikely to light a fire under the next generation of American innovators.

First of all, Sputnik long ago lost its iconic status in our collective memory. Few younger people today can probably imagine just how great a shock the Soviet launch of Sputnik was—to our national pride, yes, but even more importantly to our national security. That generalized sense of imminent threat from a foreign power does not exist today; it’s been replaced by the much more localized and personal threat of terrorism.

Second, the ‘space race’ between the United States and the Soviet Union was very much a competition and very much a race. The two countries were opponents competing head to head. The ‘race’ metaphor was implicit throughout Obama’s speech, most noticeably in the repeated use of phrases like “The future is ours to win” and “winning the future.” Our competitors in this race are countries like China and India, which are out-innovating us just as the Soviets did in the 1950s.

But this isn’t the 1950s, and unleashing “a wave of innovation” and creating “new industries and millions of new jobs” depends more on collaboration than confrontation with countries like China and India. Obama even acknowledged when he suggested that foreign students and the children of illegal immigrants be allowed to remain in the U.S. to start businesses and create jobs. The President, keen to sustain the conciliatory tone he struck at the memorial for the victims of the Tucson shooting, was careful to use the metaphor of “family” when referring to domestic issues. But he reverted to an ‘us versus them’ metaphor when talking about the economic threat posed by America’s foreign competitors.

Obama’s Sputnik metaphor isn’t right because today both the stakes and the threats are totally different. We do need to create jobs, get the economy going, and reduce C02 emissions, for sure. But to achieve those goals America needs China and India just as much as it needs investment in alternative energy and infrastructure projects. This race is only won if everyone crosses the finishing line at the same time.

Aphorisms by George Murray

George Murray is editor of the literary website Bookninja.com and author of Glimpse: Selected Aphorisms. There is a sort of casual surrealism about Murray’s aphorisms, as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world to compare worry, for example, to a playground. The metaphors are both pedestrian and astonishing, reminiscent of aphorists like Malcom de Chazal and Ramon Gomez de la Serna. The deep strangeness of the images and juxtapositions takes a while to sink in, mostly because of Murray’s deadpan delivery. Reading his aphorisms is like talking on a phone with a slight delay; you understand what’s been said a beat or so after it has been spoken. And that split-second delay, filled with thoughts and speculation, is where the wonder lies, of aphorisms in general and these aphorisms in particular. The charm of Glimpse is that so many of the aphorisms in it make you do a double take.

Hindsight is 20/20, but only if you’re looking back.

Depression is insanity without urgency.

The coffin’s satin is life’s pink slip.

Fishermen cast anchors before lines.

Help is what happens to you when your need meets the need of another.

Reading is like taking a poison and its antidote in the same swallow.

Worry is a playground for those with time enough to visit it.

Panic is worry on a tight schedule.

No number of glances can add up to a good look.

There’s not a single thing that couldn’t be, but pretty much everything is next to impossible.

Charity is what we give to make things go away.

Turning forty is like looking up and realizing it’s two in the afternoon.

Metaphor and Obama’s Sputnik Analogy

There is a fascinating take in Miller-McCune on President Obama’s recent speech in which the President compared America’s flagging international competitiveness to the period in the 1950s when the Soviet Union managed to put the first satellite into space. Embarrassed, enraged, and more than a little threatened by the Soviet success, the U.S. poured resources into research and development and ended up first on the Moon. Nevertheless, the President’s analogy (analogy being a kind of extended metaphor) got stuck on the launching pad. “Beyond the growing evidence that America is not No. 1 in the key arenas likely to drive the world out of economic malaise, Obama’s Sputnik analogy may not make for a very good fit,” Emily Badger writes.

Badger points out that it was more than just wounded national pride that motivated America to win the “space race” (another competitive metaphor, by the way). Sputnik was an impressive technological achievement as well as a direct military threat. Some people even equated the 1957 Soviet launch to Pearl Harbor. Obama’s analogy isn’t right because today both the stakes and the threats are totally different. In the 1950s, the priority was to make something happen: Win the space race by putting a man on the Moon. Today, the priority is to prevent something from happening: Reduce carbon emissions to prevent catastrophic climate change. Different problems require different metaphors if people are to be motivated to solve those problems.

In terms of the environmental challenge, some argue that the term “global warming” is far too mild, suggesting a relaxed and possibly pleasant condition rather than one that is urgent and potentially catastrophic. Instead, they suggest that terms like “climate crisis” or even “climate cancer” would be more accurate and more likely to motivate changes in behavior. The term “greenhouse gases” may also be outdated. Few people have any direct knowledge of greenhouses these days, just as few people are likely to get the Sputnik analogy, so we need a more relevant metaphor.

Instead of our “Sputnik moment,” how about this analogy: This is our “ecological sub-prime mortgage crisis moment.” The analogy fits. The environmental crisis is a crisis of our own making, just as the sub-prime mortgage crisis and subsequent recession were. The environmental crisis also has many of the same causes as the sub-prime mortgage crisis; namely, greed, unsustainable spending (of natural resources), and a self-defeating focus on short-term gains rather than long-term returns. Happily, the outcome of the environmental crisis can be directly affected by what we do, just like the sub-prime mortgage crisis: Live within our means.

“This is our ecological sub-prime mortgage crisis moment” is hardly stirring rhetoric, but it does remind people that the challenges we face relate to inner rather than to outer space and it does bring the distant, abstract prospect of “global warming” firmly down to earth.

Blatant self-promotional message:

Want to know more about metaphor? Check out I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, out on February 8, 2011.

Metaphor and the Pearl Harbor effect

Last week was the 69th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which FDR so memorably and so metaphorically described as “a date which will live in infamy.” This piece from MarketWatch provides an interesting Japanese perspective on the attack (and the date) and outlines how “Pearl Harbor” has become a metaphor for any unexpected, cataclysmic event, such as when Warren Buffett “used the phrase ‘economic Pearl Harbor’ to describe the credit crisis facing the U.S. in the autumn of 2008.”

Historical metaphors like these have hidden power. Psychologist Thomas Gilovich demonstrated this by asking a group of Stanford undergraduates to imagine that they were high-ranking officials in the U.S. State Department. He informed them that a small democratic country of no vital interest to U.S. national security had been attacked by a moderately powerful communist or fascist country and had asked the U.S. for help. What should the U.S. do—nothing, appeal to the United Nations, or intervene?

Gilovich then gave each student one of three different descriptions of this hypothetical foreign policy crisis, each of which contained a few minor associations and a few familiar names designed to trigger different historical analogies. One scenario featured allusions to World War II, another featured allusions to Vietnam, and the third was historically neutral. In the World War II scenario, minorities were described as fleeing in boxcars on freight trains, while the State Department briefing was described as held in Winston Churchill Hall. In the Vietnam scenario, minorities were described as fleeing in small boats up the coast, while the State Department briefing was described as held in Dean Rusk Hall, named after President Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of state during the Vietnam War.

These historical cues were, of course, entirely irrelevant to the decision participants had to make. Nonetheless, subjects given the World War II scenario made more interventionist recommendations than the other two. The Vietnam and control groups both tended to recommend a hands-off approach. Gilovich quizzed students afterward, and none was aware of the historical allusions embedded in the descriptions—and all denied that these associations could have influenced their decisions.

Historical metaphors create associations in our minds that are difficult to ignore, and those associations can influence our decisions without our conscious knowledge. Something to consider the next time you find yourself heading for your Waterloo or re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic

Blatant self-promotional message:

Want to know more about metaphor? Check out I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, out on February 8, 2011.

“Bad metaphors make for bad policy”

So says Paul Krugman in his most recent NYTimes column. “America’s economy isn’t a stalled car, nor is it an invalid who will soon return to health if he gets a bit more rest,” Krugman writes. “Our problems are longer-term than either metaphor implies … The idea that the economic engine is going to catch or the patient rise from his sickbed any day now encourages policy makers to settle for sloppy, short-term measures when the economy really needs well-designed, sustained support.”

Metaphors definitely matter in economics. When describing the stock market, for example, we tend to consistently use specific types of metaphors for specific types of price movements. ‘Agent metaphors’ describe price movements as the deliberate action of a living thing, as in “the NASDAQ climbed higher” or “the Dow fought its way upward.” In contrast, ‘object metaphors’ describe price movements as non-living things subject to external forces, as in “the NASDAQ dropped off a cliff” or “the Dow fell like a brick.”

Psychologist Michael W. Morris and collaborators found that because a metaphor like “the NASDAQ climbed higher” suggests a living thing pursuing a goal, people expect the upward trend to continue. If, for example, house prices are relentlessly described as climbing higher and higher, homeowners might unconsciously assume that the steady ascent is unstoppable. They might feel confident in, say, taking out mortgages they really can’t afford in the expectation that soaring property values will eventually make unsustainable debt look like a smart investment.

Something entirely different is suggested by object metaphors like “the NASDAQ dropped off a cliff.” When something drops off a cliff, it tends to keep falling. And when it hits bottom, it usually remains exactly where it landed. So, if stock prices are described in passive terms as dropping, plunging, or plummeting, investors might be unconsciously prompted into panic selling, imagining that the decline is irreversible. This kind of thinking pushes investors to sell en masse when prices fall, at precisely the time when logic dictates they should be buying since stocks are becoming cheaper.

So handle financial metaphors with care. Even if the economic engine sputters back to life, the road to recovery may turn out to be a dead end…

Blatant self-promotional message:

Want to know more about metaphor? Check out I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, out on February 8, 2011.