First year PhD candidate Emily Dahlgaard Thor and her undergraduate research assistants’ poster about metaphor and intuitive cognition in science communications was one of the twenty-five finalists at this year’s Research, Innovation, and Scholarship Expo (RISE) awards on April 5th. Congratulations to Emily and her undergraduate research assistants, Kristhy Bartels, Natalia Chavez, and Eliza Grossman!


Emily, who achieved a double Bachelors of Science degree in Psychology and Linguistics, was captivated by Linguist George Lakoff’s work on metaphors. Lakoff proposes that we organize many concepts in terms of metaphors and analogies, and that this metaphorical thinking shapes our conceptual understanding. Similarly, we spontaneously develop intuitive theories, or ‘cognitive construals,’ to help us make sense of past events and more accurately predict future ones. Both cognitive construals and metaphors are intuitively-appealing, coherent, pervasive, and robust ways of understanding abstract concepts, and ultimately allow us to make sense of the world around us.


In this research, the team is especially interested in not only the interplay between metaphors and cognitive construals, but also how they might influence the comprehension of science concepts in the realm of science communications. The Metaphor Team created a corpus of over 300 publicly and freely accessible science sources targeting different audiences: a general audience, a science-interested audience, and a scholarly audience. The articles in the “COREpus” will soon be coded for the use of metaphors, and construal-based language. Thereafter we plan to assess the sources for accessibility and how that accessibility relates to incidence of metaphors and cognitive construals.


We have two main predictions. First, that the science sources targeting general audiences will use construal-based and metaphorical language more frequently than do articles targeting science-interested and scholar audiences. Second, that the accessibility of science sources will increase as metaphorical language and construal-based language increase. Explaining otherwise complex and mystifying science concepts in a way that appeals to one’s intuition — via the use of construals and metaphors— may allow one to understand those concepts much more effectively. However, it is important to note that intuitive or metaphorical language may also hinder our comprehension of scientific concepts, as it may reinforce misconceptions.


This research would be the first of its kind to link metaphorical thought to intuitive cognition in the realm of science communications in particular. More specifically, this research might help us distinguish to what extent intuitive thinking using metaphors or construals advance and broaden people’s understanding of science concepts or to what extent it may hinder people’s understanding of science concepts in perpetuating misconceptions. Ultimately, this research may reveal how to more effectively translate abstract and complicated science findings into accessible and accurate knowledge that even non-scholars can appreciate and use in their day to day lives.


Click here to check out the Metaphors RISE Poster.