Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Psycho Bites: Metaphors and Similes

I’m a psychology undergraduate doing my final year project on figurative language. If I find something interesting or relative to writing (the whole reason I picked a psycholinguistic project) then I’ll post it on here for you to read. Do we have a deal?

I'll start with the psychological difference between a metaphor and a smile. A simile compares two concepts using ‘like’ or ‘as’ to. A metaphor is very similar except it states that the concepts are the same despite the reader knowing they’re not.

It turns out metaphors are more powerful because we can read them faster. This was discovered by measuring how long it took for a person to read a sentence written in a metaphorical form (‘jobs are jails’) compared to how long it took to read as a simile (‘jobs are like jails’). Metaphors were read faster!

They also provide different types of imagery. Similes provide more basic links which are true for both items where as metaphors seem to open your mind up to further possibilities. The example given is ‘ideas are like diamonds’ versus ‘ideas are diamonds’. The simile version made participants think of descriptions such as ‘rare’ and ‘valuable’ which are only true for diamonds, whereas the metaphoric version elicited descriptions closer to the original feature of ideas such as ‘creative’ and ‘insightful’.

It seems metaphors focus more on the concept you’re originally trying to heighten (‘ideas’) where as similes drawn in features of the concept you’re using as a comparison (‘diamonds’).

I suppose that means metaphors are more figurative comparisons where as similes are more literal. That makes sense. The fact similes use the word ‘like’ or ‘as’ tends to warn the reader not to be too serious, it’s just a comparison. On the other hand, metaphors dive right in there, making them quicker, stronger, but not always appropriate.

However, when people are asked to choose between a metaphor or a simile, most prefer to read the simile version. Metaphors may be stronger but as always, don't overdo the technique. Stronger techniques usually mean less is more.

If you want to read the full paper by Glucksburg (2003) where all this info came from, then click here.