Metaphors bias perceptions of scientific discovery

Credit: Paul Brennan/public domain

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). Indeed, the seed metaphor "increased perceptions that a female inventor was a genius, while the light bulb 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."

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More information: Social Psychological and Personality Science, DOI: 10.1177/1948550616667611
Citation: Metaphors bias perceptions of scientific discovery (2016, October 7) retrieved 24 August 2019 from
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Oct 07, 2016
"...language that stresses the role of effort rather than inspiration... may have real benefits for students' motivation."

Most people don't understand that doing "effort" requires an already present motivation.

No one "decides" to motivate themselves. The thought, "I could decide to motivate myself," arises into mind as a thought first, on its own, or it can't even be thought about. You cannot think about ANYTHING until it comes to mind first! Right now try thinking what your next thought will be before it comes to mind...

What this means is that its an illusion to think that we can motivate ourselves. Our inspiration arises when it does, on its own, and cannot be enabled without a prior inspirational thought.

We can, however, motivate each other through talk and media, but telling people that they can motivate themselves, leads to impossible expectations and a demoralized sense of self for all of us from time to time, as the lack of motivation is seen as laziness.

Oct 08, 2016
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Oct 08, 2016
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Oct 08, 2016
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Oct 08, 2016
A "fact" without supporting data doesn't really fit with science, Optical. Strongly overlapping bell curves of characteristics of thinking by men and women do not constitute a "factual" contrast in thinking.

It is highly misleading even to look at overall population averages in the context because it is neither the average of men nor the average of women who become scientists.

However your contention about heroic models of "lightbulb" thinking hiding mainstream ignorance does go close. I'd modify "ignorance" to "refusal", however. The pretext is always that we lack evidence to support the new contention, while failing to acknowledge that we also lack evidence to support the orthodox view. We haven't seen because we refuse to look.

An idea that succeeds against that kind of blindness is the antithesis of a "lightbulb moment". The idea only succeeds after long effort to build robust support for the idea. That holds whether the proponent of the new idea is a man or a woman.

Oct 08, 2016
"...'language that stresses the role of effort rather than inspiration... may have real benefits for students' motivation.' . . . No one "decides" to motivate themselves."

Everyone has ideas, drmudd. Both those who expect everyone to be swept away by their new idea and those who realise that their idea needs substantiation and work.

Having a clearer picture of what lies ahead is key to sustaining motivation through the process.

The heroic model of innovation (including art as well as science) might almost be seen as a societal construct to constrain innovative thinking to a level consistent with social stability. It deters most people from becoming researchers or innovators and keeps them on the production line (whether in the factory or the office).

Oct 09, 2016
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Oct 09, 2016
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