Metaphorical Mind Games that Influence Behavior

Do you think you’d judge people differently if you were holding something heavy rather than holding nothing at all? What if you were holding a cup of hot coffee as opposed to a cold drink? Emerging research says yes.

Studies show that the brain thinks in metaphors, and these metaphors are deeply ingrained into our culture and have a powerful influence on the way we judge others and our mental models of the world.

Some linguistic experts maintain we use a metaphor every 25 words, but because they are so embedded in our language, they often go unnoticed.

The language of metaphors can dramatically impact our perceptions of others in ways that have significant consequences. It’s called embodied cognition (closely related to haptic sensation), and it’s thinking that involves constructing “simulations” of bodily experiences. People are more likely to judge an issue to be important when they are holding a heavy object. The sensorimotor experience of weight gives us the perception of importance, like the word “weighty”, is used as an adjective to describe things that are important.

To put it another way, embodied cognition helps explain how your physical and emotional state interact and impact the way you think. If your heart is racing, your brain functions differently. If you experience something that is cold to the touch, you’ll associate an emotional interaction with coldness or lacking affection.

For example, in one study, participants were asked to hold either a hot or a cold drink before assessing the personality traits of an individual whom they knew nothing about beyond the “packet of information” given to them during the experiment. Questions were separated into two categories: those related to warm/cold distinctions such as caring or selfish and social or anti-social and those unrelated such as carefree or serious and strong or weak. The researchers found that participants who held hot drinks rated the individual as “significantly ‘warmer” and “friendlier” than those that held cold drinks. Subjects were also given a gift card that they could either gift to a friend or keep for themselves. Those holding the warm drink were more likely to give the gift to a friend, whereas those holding the cold drink were more inclined to keep it for themselves.

Warm = affectionate, generous. Cold = unfeeling, uncaring.

In another study conducted at Stanford, participants were asked to read brief passages about crime in a fictional city. One group of participants received the passage where the crime was described as a virus infecting the city. In the other group, crime was described as a “beast preying” on the city. Other than those phrases, the passages remained exactly the same.

Simply changing a few words in the passage dramatically changed people’s attitudes about solutions for crime. Those who read the passage with the “beast” metaphor suggested much more punitive consequences like tougher prison sentences. Those who read the passage with the “virus” metaphor took a stronger position on treating the root cause of the crime by developing more effective reform measures. Remarkably, that single metaphor caused an even bigger difference in opinion than differences of opinion between Republicans and Democrats.

Beast = dangerous. Virus = sick.

What’s even more interesting is that metaphors influence our thinking unconsciously. Because they evoke physical sensations in our minds, they shape and often distort our perceptions in ways that we are not aware of. For example, one neuroscience study showed that reading the sentence “he had a rough day,” instead of the sentence “he had a bad day,” activated the region of the brain associated with texture rather than emotion. Different words create different physical and visceral responses even though we aren’t aware of the difference.

Cognitive scientists suggest that metaphors help us simplify abstract concepts by integrating cues from bodily sensations and the environment.

This is why certain ideas become interlaced to a point where experiencing a physical sensation can activate ideas of an interpersonal experience like physical warmth can activate ideas of affection toward others.

When we talk about arguments we have with others, we use phrases like defend, attack, clash, and feud. We not only talk about arguments this way; we think about arguments in these terms, and this thinking shapes our actions. We either win or lose an argument. We see the other person as an opponent and attack his position while defending our own. While there may not be a physical battle, heated arguments become verbal battles. The “argument is war” metaphor significantly influences the way we behave in an argument.

This is some of the work done by George Lakoff, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1978, he discovered that we think metaphorically and he spent the next year gathering as many metaphors as he could find to write one of the most groundbreaking books in cognitive science. The central message of his book, Conceptual Metaphor Theory (co-authored by Mark Johnson) is that metaphors don’t just influence language, they influence the way we think. Lakoff maintains that metaphors are represented physically in the brain and as a result, that metaphorical brain circuitry affects the way we perceive others as well as our response to them.

Embodied cognition has a relatively short history. It dates back to early 20th century philosophers, but it has only been studied empirically in the last few decades. Since then, there have been a wide range of studies to test the construct of the influence of the body on the mind via metaphorical thought:

  • Thinking about the future caused participants to lean slightly forward while thinking about the past caused participants to lean slightly backwards. Future is Ahead 
  • Squeezing a soft ball influenced subjects to perceive gender-neutral faces as female while squeezing a hard ball influenced subjects to perceive gender-neutral faces as male. Female is Soft, Male is Hard
  • Those who held heavier clipboards judged currencies to be more valuable and their opinions and leaders to be more important. People are more confident that they would remember words physically attached to heavy boxes than words attached to lightboxes. Although actual recognition memory performance was not influenced by the weight manipulation, weight created an illusion that items would be memorable. Important is Heavy.
  • Subjects asked to think about a moral transgression like adultery or cheating on a test were more likely to request an antiseptic cloth after the experiment than those who had thought about good deeds. Morality is Purity

While there is some controversy regarding replication and validity, a wealth of research has emerged in the last two decades that confirm Lakoff was onto something big… or heavy… or important.


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. This reminds me of one of my favorite activities that I started in college: if you find a source (TV, newspaper, etc.) with two different biases, you see how they use words and language differently. If a source is isolationist (a word in itself which evokes a certain type of emotion), it will use defensive language, versus a source that is more global, which tends to use more inclusive language.

    Words certainly have power, yet we rely on everything in the surrounding area before reacting to those words. It’s not just verbal or non-verbal cues, such as intonation, accents, speed of speech, the use of formal or informal language, body language cues, etc…. it’s also our surrounding environment and all of our inputs. If I was in the midst of a protest and heard, “Get down!”, I would react differently than if I heard these same words in my suburban neighborhood.

    This stuff is absolutely fascinating – please, keep writing about what you find in the rabbit holes!

  2. Thank you Melissa,
    This is really something else, when it comes to an insightful share.
    Al kind a words and habits come into my mind like, amazing, eyeopeners, “really?”, “do I do that?”, “do I react like that?”. It is going to make me being alert, while using words or watching my habits.
    It also made me think of today, as I was the whole day with my family, in the evening some of us were drinking coffee and some of us were drinking cold stuff. As I remember who had coffee and who had cold water or cold soda, my mind is going like “he? really?” and “she? yes she is a warm person” “now I am getting you all!”.
    Tomorrow I am going to share this with them, haha, while doing the coffee-round!
    Thank you for this Melissa.

    • Thanks for taking the time to share your experience, Ineke! I did the same thing after I started digging into the research. I thought about recent interactions I had and tried to remember who was drinking what, holding something heavy, leaning in, etc. I’m definitely tuned into this stuff now and noticing things a lot more.

  3. Thanks, Melissa.
    There’s a tension between our metaphoric dictionaries, driven by culture, age, gender, and so forth so that sometimes a crystal-clear encapsulation of a metaphor may be startlingly different depending upon individual context. Witness the adjective “chunky.”
    Be well,

  4. Melissa these are interesting examples! As I think back to meetings where food was served, such as hot lunches at Rotary and cold food at other events, I wonder how I’ve been impacted over the years. Did holding cold water hold me back? Did holding hot water and hot tea (and leaning forward 🙂 make things happen?


  5. Great stuff Melissa, and so true in my work too.
    Having studied the physicality and relational quotient of behaviour in my Gender Dynamics Intelligence mapping of a new narrative between people, I concur with your article… and I have designed a simple profiling tool that looks at characteristics of our physicality (shape, scale, height, density, posture, colours and tones of voice) and how some are ‘heavy/hard’ and some are ‘soft/gentle’ along a continuum and impact our personality in behaviour and presence as we come into any face-to-face situation and unconsciously and conscious interact with our words and deeds.

    These natural traits form the core of our presence as in my own case, being a heavy density bone, straight bone structure, to be – by my definition – a masculine-minded female MF that has a square rib cage, high hip bone, stands straight naturally, hardly ever wears dresses(out of natural preference) and loves logical thinking even when feeling/nurturing (as mum and grandma and friend). This all adds to our responsibility to know the person inside and in the mirror!!!

    Great article, thanks…would love to chat more on this…

  6. Fascinating information offered here, Melissa! I often use metaphors a great deal in my life because I’ve discovered these communicate very powerfully-they have a “stickiness.” about them. I did not know that holding a warm drink with a person sends a message about warmth and generosity. (vs holding a cold drink-except maybe after running a half marathon-everyone is drinking cold water!) Does the larger context matter in these situations? Great post. I continue to gain so much “good stuff” and new learnings from your valuable and informative videos and articles. Thank you so much as I keep having “aha’s”!!

  7. This is fascinating stuff, Melissa! It also points up the responsibility we all carry in choosing our words. What immediately came to mind is our president’s use of the word “plague” vs “virus” and then associating it with China. Words have consequences. I adore you and your work!

    • Thank you for sharing, Kimberly. I thought the same thing about the way the pandemic has been referred to lately. Understanding how specific words shape not only our attitudes but also our behavior is simply fascinating to me.
      Indeed, words have consequences.
      BTW… I adore you and your work, too!! 🙂