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Metaphors Bias Perceptions of Scientific Discovery

Summary: According to a new study, metaphors can influence our perceptions of the quality of an idea and the ability of the idea’s creator.

Source: Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

While the metaphor that ideas appear “like light bulbs” is popular and appealing, new research shows that discovery metaphors influence our understanding of the scientific process and perceptions of the ability of inventors based on their gender.

Whether ideas are “like a light bulb” or come forth as “nurtured seeds,” how we describe discovery shapes people’s perceptions of both inventions and inventors. Notably, Kristen Elmore (Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research at Cornell University) and Myra Luna-Lucero (Teachers College, Columbia University) have shown that discovery metaphors influence our perceptions of the quality of an idea and of the ability of the idea’s creator. The research appears in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

While those involved in research know there are many trials and errors and years of work before something is understood, discovered or invented, our use of words for inspiration may have an unintended and underappreciated effect of portraying good ideas as a sudden and exceptional occurrence.

In a series of experiments, Elmore and Luna-Lucero tested how people responded to ideas that were described as being “like a light bulb,” “nurtured like a seed,” or a neutral description.

According the authors, the “light bulb metaphor implies that ‘brilliant’ ideas result from sudden and spontaneous inspiration, bestowed upon a chosen few (geniuses) while the seed metaphor implies that ideas are nurtured over time, ‘cultivated’ by anyone willing to invest effort.”

The first study looked at how people reacted to a description of Alan Turing’s invention of a precursor to the modern computer. It turns out light bulbs are more remarkable than seeds.

“We found that an idea was seen as more exceptional when described as appearing like a light bulb rather than nurtured like a seed,” said Elmore.

But this pattern changed when they used these metaphors to describe a female inventor’s ideas. When using the “like a light bulb” and “nurtured seed” metaphors, the researchers found “women were judged as better idea creators than men when ideas were described as nurtured over time like seeds.”

The results suggest gender stereotypes play a role in how people perceived the inventors.

In the third study, the researchers presented participants with descriptions of the work of either a female (Hedy Lamarr) or a male (George Antheil) inventor, who together created the idea for spread-spectrum technology (a precursor to modern wireless communications).

Image shows a light bulb with a tree inside.

Whether ideas are “like a light bulb” or come forth as “nurtured seeds,” how we describe discovery shapes people’s perceptions of both inventions and inventors. NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology press release.

Indeed, the seed metaphor “increased perceptions that a female inventor was a genius, while the light bulb metaphor was more consistent with stereotypical views of male genius,” stated Elmore.

Elmore plans to expand upon their research on metaphors by examining the interactions of teachers and students in real world classroom settings.

“The ways that teachers and students talk about ideas may impact students’ beliefs about how good ideas are created and who is likely to have them,” said Elmore. “Having good ideas is relevant across subjects—whether students are creating a hypothesis in science or generating a thesis for their English paper—and language that stresses the role of effort rather than inspiration in creating ideas may have real benefits for students’ motivation.”

About this psychology research article

Source: Society for Personality and Social Psychology
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology press release.
Original Research: Abstract for “Light Bulbs or Seeds? How Metaphors for Ideas Influence Judgments About Genius” by Kristen C. Elmore and Myra Luna-Lucero in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Published online October 7 2016 doi:10.1177/1948550616667611

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
Society for Personality and Social Psychology “Metaphors Bias Perceptions of Scientific Discovery.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 8 October 2016.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/science-metaphors-bias-5243/>.
Society for Personality and Social Psychology (2016, October 8). Metaphors Bias Perceptions of Scientific Discovery. NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved October 8, 2016 from http://neurosciencenews.com/science-metaphors-bias-5243/
Society for Personality and Social Psychology “Metaphors Bias Perceptions of Scientific Discovery.” http://neurosciencenews.com/science-metaphors-bias-5243/ (accessed October 8, 2016).

Abstract

Light Bulbs or Seeds? How Metaphors for Ideas Influence Judgments About Genius

Ideas are commonly described using metaphors; a bright idea appears like a “light bulb” or the “seed” of an idea takes root. However, little is known about how these metaphors may shape beliefs about ideas or the role of effort versus genius in their creation, an important omission given the known motivational consequences of such beliefs. We explore whether the light bulb metaphor, although widespread and intuitively appealing, may foster the belief that innovative ideas are exceptional occurrences that appear suddenly and effortlessly—inferences that may be particularly compatible with gendered stereotypes of genius as male. Across three experiments, we find evidence that these metaphors influence judgments of idea quality and perceptions of an inventor’s genius. Moreover, these effects varied by the inventor’s gender and reflected prevailing gender stereotypes: Whereas the seed (vs. light bulb) metaphor increased the perceived genius of female inventors, the opposite pattern emerged for male inventors.

“Light Bulbs or Seeds? How Metaphors for Ideas Influence Judgments About Genius” by Kristen C. Elmore and Myra Luna-Lucero in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Published online October 7 2016 doi:10.1177/1948550616667611

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