Special Session Summary the Necessity of Metaphorical Reasoning and Its Effect on Knowledge Representation and Decision Making

George S. Babbes, University of California at Berkeley,
[ to cite ]:
George S. Babbes, University of California at Berkeley (1996) ,"Special Session Summary the Necessity of Metaphorical Reasoning and Its Effect on Knowledge Representation and Decision Making", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 454.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Page 454



George S. Babbes, University of California at Berkeley

The objective of our session was to discuss the necessity and significance of metaphor in knowledge representation, reasoning and decision-making. The specific goals were to: (1) establish that cognitive structure is often organized metaphorically, and that this structure has significant systematic effects on reasoning and decision-making; and (2) demonstrate how an understanding of metaphor theory can be used to both create representations that systematically influence reasoning and decision making, and uncover representations that are consciously or unconsciously being utilized in reasoning and decision-making.

The motivation for this session was rooted in the fact that despite widespread use in advertising and consumer research, virtually no research on the cognitive theory of metaphor has been discussed in the marketing literature. This is an effort to augment the literary tradition and recognize metaphor's role as a cognitive instrument.


The first paper (Jerry Zaltman) explored the use of visual and other sensory metaphors to elicit the mental models or structure of constructs people have about a product category. The basic premise is that thought is largely created, shaped, and represented by iconic images called metaphors. Further, many of these metaphors are rooted in perceptual and motor systems, and hence, metaphors of physicality are very prominent. The basic idea of embodied cognition reflects the presence of these image-schemata in everyday thought.

Importantly, four basic premises underlie the connection between metaphor and mental models: (1) most human communication is nonverbal, and as such, basic senses have a significant role in learning and communications processes; (2) metaphors are the key windows/mechanisms for viewing a consumer's thoughts and feelings, and for understanding behavior; (3) our senses provide the source for important metaphors, and as such, are potentially important devices for understanding consumers' thoughts and behavior; and (4) consumers have mental models which represent their knowledge and behavior.

Based on these premises, Jerry discussed an approach he developed for uncovering how sensory perceptions map onto abstract thought. This is basically a research tool to recover latent mental models used by consumers. These mental models reveal basic reasoning processes and can provide deep, useful insights about consumers and their emerging needs.


Our second paper (Trudy Kehret-Ward) considered SENSING-IS-EVALUATING metaphors. Examples of these metaphors include: "compare and SEE for yourself," "HEAR the excellence for yourself," "TASTE what all the excitement's about," and "they're MUSIC to your mouth." Trudy's basic research question is: "do these metaphors really help people with the admittedly abstract activity of evaluating products?"

In a past study, Trudy found that SENSING-IS-EVALUATING metaphor headlines created significantly improved product evaluation for product category enthusiasts versus those indifferent to the product category. This was not true of non-metaphor headlines.

This follow-up study, tapping into parallels between metaphor elaboration and vividness, manipulated "imaging" as a mediating variable. Consistent with the vividness literature, "imaging" increased the number of "total" and "product-related" thoughts for enthusiasts, but had no effect on the number of thoughts generated by those indifferent to the category. "Mood" and "task-liking" were also measured, but were unaffected by the "imaging" manipulation.


Our third paper (George Babbes & David Aaker) discussed the affect of metaphor on reasoning and inference making. The underlying question was: "if conceptual metaphors do, in fact, structure everyday thinking, to what extent is our reasoning and decision-making affected by a metaphor's conceptual structure?"

The basic hypothesis was that metaphors, like other schemas, enable us to make inferences automatically, unconsciously and with little cognitive effort. If this is the case, it may be difficult to reason independent of metaphor. That is, once a metaphorical mapping is accepted and establishes a cognitive structure, an individual's reasoning and decision making processes may be restricted to a non-arbitrary set of assumptions, operators and outcomes. As a consequence, metaphors can have a powerful effect on reasoning and decision-making.

To test this idea, two experiments were conducted. The first experiment supported the hypothesis that metaphor can create a cognitive structure that: (1) improves memory for brand and product (versus no-metaphor control); and (2) restructures memory to be consistent with metaphorical inferences. The second experiment examined the effect of metaphor on experts versus novices. Findings indicate that novices can be held hostage to reasonable inferences based on metaphor. However, experts are able to reason independent of arbitrary metaphor structures.


In the discussion, our discussion leader (Bill Wells) pointed out that we work with metaphors everydayC summary statistics, mathematical models, marketing models, most knowledge structures, etc.C in that we utilize simple, understandable domains to reason about more abstract and complicated ones. Many of the participants relayed similar results and intuitions from their own work complementing results and concepts from the presentations.

Encouragingly, it was clear from the discussion that interest in the cognitive implications of metaphor is strong and gaining momentum. This interest, coupled with progress in other disciplines (e.g. psychology, anthropology, linguistics), portends significant opportunities for productive research in this area.