When Metaphors Attack!

We're wired to understand complex concepts by grounding them in simpler ones. It's often an effective way to get by in a complex world--but can lead us astray when it comes to our finances.

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In an earlier post we described research that many folks would find odd: People believe more in global warming on hot days (or in hot rooms) than on cool days (or cool rooms). But in today’s installment of Mind Over Money, we discuss something that may seem even stranger. Not too long ago, two University of Toronto professors, Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoff Leonardelli, conducted a study in which some participants were asked to recall a time they’d been socially excluded, while others were asked to remember a time they were welcomed. When later asked to estimate the temperature of the room they were in, those who’d recalled being ostracized thought it was significantly cooler. So, apparently, we take the phrase “cold and lonely” quite literally.

In a second study, Zhong and Leonardelli had subjects play a computerized ball-tossing game, ostensibly with other participants. But the game was rigged so that some subjects were “thrown” the ball repeatedly while others were ignored. When later asked to fill out a marketing survey, those ignored in the game rated warm food and beverages (coffee, soup) as more desirable than cold or neutral items (Coke, crackers). Yes: we really feel cold when we’re lonely, so we seek out warmer snacks.

Studies like these show that humans are wired to think in metaphors. The only way we can understand complex concepts is to ground them in simpler ones. Do you see what we mean? We bet you do, since we purposely didn’t ask if you understand what we mean. That’s because “understanding” is complex, while “seeing” is simpler. For similar reasons, people refer to appealing notions as “bright” ideas, because seeing is easier when illumination is greater.
[time-link title=”(Read about The Sideways Economy and the Top 5 Ways to Kill a Recovery)” url=http://curiouscapitalist.blogs.time.com/2011/06/15/top-5-ways-to-kill-the-u-s-recovery/]

This tendency to ground complex concepts in simpler metaphors has had a notable influence on current thinking about the federal budget. Politicians often say that the federal government should do “what every family has to do — balance its books.” Once again we see the grounding of a complex concept (the federal budget) in something much simpler (household budget). But should our thoughts about the government’s fiscal policy really be guided by what ordinary households should do? (Never mind that so many U.S. households are awash in debt.) The U.S. economy is a complex, dynamic system with each action having the potential for all sorts of reverberating and counterintuitive effects. When times are rough and jobs uncertain and scarce, it makes sense for many households to cut back. But with so many households cutting back, overall demand generally shrinks, and so it might be wise for government to provide the stimulus necessary to prevent further contraction. Or maybe not. But with the U.S. economy stuck in neutral, you could at least make a compelling case that earlier stimulus efforts were too weak, and that the best course of action would’ve been to care less about acting like an individual household in the short-term. Instead, a much stronger short-term stimulus combined with long-term budget restraint may have been more effective (and may still be).
[time-link title=”(Read about how the budget deficit has neared the $1 trillion mark)” url=http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2077053,00.html]

We are not the first, of course, to argue for aggressive and robust action to combat the 2008 economic downturn. And we are certainly not macroeconomists. But we do want to point out why “clear” thinking (note the metaphor) about the subject can be so difficult. The mind works in metaphors. We anchor our understanding of complex systems and ideas in simpler templates — sometimes in templates that obscure rather than enlighten.

The same problem exists in personal finance, especially in regards to investing. For example, many experts and most amateurs love spouting some version of a simple adage that says to “invest in what you know,” which sounds smart but usually ends up meaning that a.) they focus on companies whose products or services they buy; or b.) they invest way too much money in the shares of their employer, presuming that the experience of working for XYZ Tech gives them special insight into the valuation of XYZ Tech’s shares. It rarely does, but the tendency to organize our thoughts in metaphors and to render complex ideas in simple terms fools people into thinking they can beat markets with a just a few simple rules. In reality, the average investor trying to compete with Warren Buffet or Bill Gross is like the average weekend warrior trying to beat Kobe Bryant or Adrian Peterson. How’s that for a metaphor?

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