Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Meier and Robinson: "Why the Sunny Side Is Up" (2004)

This Psychological Science paper by Brian P. Meier and Michael D. Robinson is a report on three experiments which collectively show that
  1. reading positive and negative words facilitates the recognition of letters that are placed high or a low, respectively,
  2. but looking up and down does facilitate the comprehension of positive and negative words.
In the terminology of Judea Pearl, we can thus say that activation of GOOD causes activation of UP, and BAD of DOWN:

Another result that came out of the experiments was that people recognize positive words faster than negative words, regardless of condition. Meier and Robinson do not discuss this effect explicitly, and I'm also not sure what to make of it.

From GOOD to UP, Not from UP to GOOD

The paper opens with a discussion of an experiment which shows that people are faster at judging whether a word is "positive" or "negative" if it's placed in a position on the computer screen which is congruent with the meaning. When the word polite is flashed at the top of the screen, for instance, you're faster at pressing the button corresponding to "positive" than when it flashes at the bottom.

This shows a correlation, but does not disentangle the question of causation. To do this, the two variables need to be manipulated independently of each other. This was achieved in two follow-up experiments which placed a spatial judgment task before or after a valence judgment task.

In the first of these follow-up experiments, the GOOD-to-UP direction was set up by a design looking roughly as follows:

That is, first the subject made a judgment about the valence of a word, and then about the identity of a letter which was presented in either a high or a low position. The last screen showed the word INCORRECT if the subject failed at the second task (as I've assumed in this example). This study found a significant facilitation effect.

The second follow-up experiment set up the UP-to-GOOD direction in a design that may be pictured thus:

Here, the subject first had to identify where a spatial cue was, and then to judge the valence of a word. In this task, they found no facilitation effect.

Is This Consistent With Cognitive Metaphor Theory?

In their brief conclusion, Meier and Robinson write:
These findings suggest that, when making evaluations, people automatically assume that objects that are high in visual space are good, whereas objects that are low in visual space are bad. (p. 247)
But there's an issue buried here which is usually evaded in cognitive metaphor theory: In which direction do the connections between source and target domain run? Meier and Robinson's results as well as the notion of "understanding in terms of" suggest that the connections run from target domain to source domain.

This analysis, however, leaves cognitive metaphor theory with little explanatory value with respect to word semantics. Consider for instance this paradigmatic instance of a "conceptual" metaphor:
  • I'm feeling up.
According to the standard analysis, I understand that the word up here means "good" because the domain of spatial position translates into the domain of moods.

But this is exactly the opposite association of what we need. Meier and Robinson's show that we have a completely literal understanding of spatial position, and that looking upwards doesn't associate to feeling good:
People can use their senses to determine whether an object is up or down, white or black. There is no need to borrow metaphor to achieve an understanding of vertical position. Because of these considerations, we view it as unlikely that physical cues, in the absence of an evaluative context, activate evaluations. (p. 245)
There is thus no neurological reason why the word up should activate the meaning "good."

While Meier and Robinson thus offer excellent evidence in favor of a system of analogies in thought, it is not obvious that these should be responsible for the way we understand metaphorical language—only that they can be seen during our comprehension of literal language. To my mind, this creates a huge problem for cognitive metaphor theory, in particular in its more recent brain-talky incarnation.

No comments :

Post a Comment