Special Session Summary Embodied Cognition: Towards a More Realistic and Productive Model of Mental Representation

George S. Babbes, University of California, Berkeley
Alan J. Malter, University of Wisconsin, Madison
[ to cite ]:
George S. Babbes and Alan J. Malter (1997) ,"Special Session Summary Embodied Cognition: Towards a More Realistic and Productive Model of Mental Representation", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 39-41.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 39-41



George S. Babbes, University of California, Berkeley

Alan J. Malter, University of Wisconsin, Madison

The objective of this session was to present and discuss embodied cognition as an alternative approach to conceptualizing the mind in consumer research. The embodied view of cognition was proposed as a more realistic and productive model of mental representation than traditional models of mind, such as the dominant mind-as-computer approach (e.g., information processing). More specifically, this session aimed to: (1) argue that cognitive structure and processes are based on embodied mental representations; (2) present empirical evidence from marketing and other disciplines in support of the principal tenets of embodied cognition; and (3) consider implications of adopting an embodied perspective for theory and method in consumer research.

This session was motivated by the growing sense that the traditional structuralist models of memory and cognition, which are so widely used in consumer research, cannot adequately account for consumer experience in a dynamic and interactive world. Embodied cognition offers a promising alternative approach that: (1) is well-grounded in the cognitive science literature (e.g., philosophy, Johnson 1987; cognitive linguistics, Lakoff 1987; Lakoff and Johnson 1980; cognitive psychology, Barsalou 1993; Glenberg, in press; neurobiology, Damasio 1994; Edelman 1992; and anthropology, Stoller 1995); (2) is an actively researched topic across a number of cognitive science disciplines; and (3) has important implications for consumer research. Though a few researchers have recently discussed the notion of embodied cognition in the marketing literature (e.g., Malter 1996; Rosa 1995; Zaltman and Coulter 1995), this view has not been thoroughly addressed in the major marketing journals, nor has it been the focus of a special session. This session was designed to fill this gap and to stimulate consumer research from an embodied perspective.

In brief, the papers in this session presented: (1) an overview of the basic theory of embodied cognition, initial empirical support from cognitive and developmental psychology, and directions for future consumer research; (2) a pioneering empirical study of the pervasive use of embodied metaphors in print advertisements; and (3) the neurobiological aspects of an embodied cognitive system and the significance of embodied cognition for human understanding. These presentations are summarized below.



Alan J. Malter, University of Wisconsin, Madison

In his overview paper, Malter noted that consumer research has been dominated by traditional structuralist models of memory and cognition, exemplified by the mind-as-computer approach of information processing (Hirschman 1993). These "disembodied" models arc generally characterized by mind-body dualism, in which the human mind is viewed as operating completely independently of the body. In this approach, mental representations involve the manipulation of meaningless abstract symbols, linked by propositions, and governed by a set of extrinsic constraints (i.e., a set of rules which are external to the system of mental representations). Concepts arc represented by lists of features, or attributes. This artificial intelligence view of the mind-as-computer breaks down when trying to account for everyday memory in a dynamic world (e.g., Neisser 1982).

Malter proposed the emerging theory of embodied cognition as a more realistic and productive view of the human mind than traditional approaches. For example, in contrast to the information processing approach (e.g., Bettman 1979) based on Cartesian dualism and its separation of mind from body, embodied cognition views the mind as a dynamic and flexible meaning system serving a fully integrated human organism. The body is not considered to be merely a support structure for the mind, but an integral part of an in dissociable mind-body whole. The "embodied" aspect of embodied cognition refers to the view that human knowledge uses a person's own body as the basic frame of reference and is encoded in memory in terms of multisensory, perceptual, image-schematic elements (not inherently meaningless, abstract symbols). In the embodied view, a process of conceptual metaphor extends basic embodied mental representations to account for abstract concepts.

Malter described and synthesized two types of embodied cognition theories which have been proposed recently by cognitive and developmental psychologists: (1) theories based on continuous and mutually constraining physical interaction between an individual and the environment (e.g., Glenberg in press; Thelen and Smith 1994); and (2) theories focusing more on the perceptual properties of mental representations and the dynamic process of conceptual combination (e.g., Barsalou 1993; Mandler 1992). The growing body of empirical evidence from the cognitive psychology literature was also reviewed, including findings that a physical manipulation (e.g., making various hand shapes) could affect performance on a cognitive task (e.g., sensibility judgments, Klatzky et a]. 1989), that body positioning enhances spatial orientation (Rieser et al. 1994), and that embodied physical experience (e.g., professional typing skills) influences categorization and preferences (Van den Bergh et al. 1990). Finally, implications were discussed of adopting an embodied view of cognition in consumer research, including placing greater emphasis on process and change, and focusing more on physical, sensory, and other experiential aspects of consumption.



George S. Babbes, University of California, Berkeley

Pamela Morgan, University of California, Berkeley

In an empirical study of conceptual metaphor in print advertisements, Babbes and Morgan found support for the view that cognition is embodied. In his presentation, Babbes first explained how conceptual metaphor differs from the traditional Aristotelian view that metaphor is simply a deviant use of language, and the objectivist view that it is irrelevant to meaning. In the cognitive view of conceptual metaphor (e.g., Lakoff 1993), something concrete (and usually embodied) is used to provide a cognitive structure for something which is abstract; this structuring is the result of a cross-domain mapping between a source (concrete) domain and a target (abstract) domain in the conceptual system. For example, in the metaphor, "Life is a journey," the concrete language of a journey (source domain) is used to talk about abstract life events (target domain). In talking about life events we might say things like, "the promotion is around the comer," "I'm at a crossroads," or "it's downhill from here."

The premise is that the human conceptual system is inherently metaphorical, using experiential gestalts to structure unfamiliar and abstract domains. As such, metaphor is expected to be (1) pervasive in ads and (2) often embodied. That is, Babbes and Morgan expected to find pervasive use of both conceptual metaphor (efficient communication) and embodied source domains (effective communication), particularly for more abstract products which would presumably benefit most from adopting the structure of favorable and well-understood conceptual domains.

To test these hypotheses, ads were pulled from Time, Business Week; and Money (2/95 to 10/95), for four progressively abstract product categories: cars, computers, money management, and insurance. Two trained coders independently coded 70 items with respect to each element of the ad (e.g., headline, picture, logo, tagline). The principal findings (based on a headline analysis) were: (1) conceptual metaphor is used extensively in ads for both concrete products (e.g., automobiles) and abstract products (e.g., insurance), each with about 60% in the headline; (2) the key selling idea of the ad is significantly more likely to be an inference of the metaphor for abstract versus concrete products (.57 versus. 13); and (3) while conceptual metaphors in most ads use an embodied source domain, the use of embodied metaphors was significantly greater in insurance ads than in automobile ads (.82 versus .58). This is consistent with the view that abstract products need the most structured source domains. The high baseline use of embodied metaphors in ads is likely due to the fact that concrete products are often communicating abstract consumer benefits, e.g., cars as sources of escape and power. In addition, all of the ads for a given product category could be reduced to a very small set of source domains (almost always embodied). For example, nearly every financial services ad used the source domain of either "physical well-being" (e.g., the Travelers umbrella) or "journey" (e.g., a compass to good retirement).

Babbes and Morgan concluded that conceptual metaphors are pervasive in advertising and are often embodied, particularly for abstract product categories. These findings have implications for communication, learning, inference-making, and public policy. A future extension of this work is to examine metaphor-use cross-culturally.



Gerald Zaltman, Harvard University

In his paper, Zaltman explained that though it may be new for consumer researchers to study how the human brain works, more experienced experts in cognitive science are still struggling with understanding basic mental structure and processes. Therefore, consumer researchers should not back away from investigating these issues, even though they are among the most challenging and seem to defy explanation.

Zaltman's work on eliciting consumers' "deep root" metaphors shows that there may be an overall mental architecture for any particular concept. This view is supported by Edelman's (1987, 1992) theory of neuronal group selection, whereby groups of neurons form concepts and networks of concepts on particular themes or topics. Edelman's theory explains the neurobiological basis of self-organizing dynamic systems of the type postulated in psychological theories of embodied cognition (e.g., Thelen and Smith 1994). Neuronal groups share certain common features, which leads to a literal wiring between the groups and a global mapping (i.e., metaphor), such as for a specific category or brand. In other words, Edelman's work provides the neurological underpinnings of how conceptual metaphors are stored in memory.

Zaltman suggested that this type of process may explain how executives approach ill-structured and messy problems, or how consumers may literally form mental models of product categories, e.g., automobiles. The use of metaphor elicitation techniques (e.g. Zaltman and Coulter 1995) to uncover deep root metaphors can help managers to better understand consumers' core concepts for particular products and find others which are related.



Dipanker Chakravarti, University of Colorado, Boulder

Chakravarti's synthesis and discussion of embodied cognition focused on some of the key issues in the 400-year-old mind-body dualism debate. He noted that the view of embodied cognition proposed in the three presentations was not simply a multisensory information processing perspective. Rather, it elaborated on the core image of mind-body dualism in which some mental representations have "gray" material properties, while others contain "colorful" thoughts and feelings. Chakravarti argued that as consumer researchers approach work on embodied cognition, they must be cognizant of the positions they take on the mind-body dualism debate.

Drawing on Chalmers' (1996) book, The Conscious Mind, Chakravarti noted that consumer researchers (like other social and natural scientists and philosophers) may adopt one of several alternative positions on the mind-body dualism issue. One position rejects dualism, denying the independent reality of matter. The focus is purely on subjective experience-an extreme interpretivism as in deconstructionist poetry. A second (and dominant) position also rejects dualism, but denies the independent reality of mind. Manifested in "materialism" in its various forms, some researchers even deny the problem, finding resolution in identification (labeling the experience), behaviorism, (e.g., focusing on "purchase behavior" as reflected in scanner data without considering its mental antecedents) or functionalism (treating the mind as merely the processing functions performed by the brain).

Following Chalmers, Chakravarti suggested that perhaps a more tenable position in consumer research is to accept dualism and then try to bridge the gap in the research context. The core problems (and issues) that arise will require that researchers deal with the issues of "intentionality" (control) and "aboutness" (locus) of mental activity concerning the subjective experiences surrounding consumption objects; find targets for words such as "availability" and "accessibility" that populate the psychologists' lexicon; avoid ambiguous metaphors (e.g., the "structure of expertise") that act as if the problem and the problem-solver can be separated; and distinguish evidence of "brain workings" from subjective experience. The problems are challenging, but consumer researchers must deal with them as they try to understand how the mind and the body are implicated in consumption. The three research papers presented in this session are a promising start.


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Conway, and P.E. Morris, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 29-101.

Bettman, James R. (1979), An Information Processing Theory of Consumer Choice, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Chalmers, David J. (1996), The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, New York: Oxford University Press.

Damasio, Antonio R. (1994), Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, New York: Putnam.

Edelman, Gerald M. (1992), Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind, New York: Basic Books.

Edelman, Gerald M. (1987), Neural Darwinism: The Theory of Neuronal Group Selection, New York: Basic Books.

Glenberg, Arthur M. (in press), "What is Memory For," Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Hirschman, Elizabeth C. (1993), "Ideology in Consumer Research, 1980 and 1990: A Marxist and Feminist Critique, Journal of Consumer Research, 19 (4), 537-555.

Johnson, Mark (1987), The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Klatzky, Roberta L., James W. Pellegrino, Brian P. McCloskey and Sally Doherty (1989), "Can You Squeeze a Tomato? The Role of Motor Representations in Semantic Sensibility Judgments," Journal of Memory and Language, 28, 56-77.

Lakoff, George (1993), "The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor," in Metaphor and Thought, second edition, ed. Andrew Ortony, New York: Cambridge University Press, 202-251.

Lakoff, George (1987), Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson (1980), Metaphors We Live By, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Malter, Alan J. (1996), "An Introduction to Embodied Cognition: Implications for Consumer Research," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John Lynch, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 272-276.

Mandler, Jean M. (1992), "How to Build a Baby: 11. Conceptual Primitives," Psychological Review, 99 (4), 587-604.

Neisser, Ulric (1982), Memory Observed: Remembering in Natural Contexts, New York: Freeman.

Rieser, John J., Anne E. Garing and Michael F. Young (1994), "Imagery, Action, and Young Children's Spatial Orientation: It's Not Being There That Counts, It's What One Has in Mind," Child Development, 65 (5), 1262-1278.

Rosa, Jose Antonio (1995), "Adaptive Selling Behavior: The Role of the Embodied System," in Proceedings of the 1995 AMA Summer Educators' Conference, Vol. 6, eds. Barbara B. Stem and George M. Zinkhan, Chicago: American Marketing Association, 400-410.

Stoller, Paul (1995), Embodying Colonial Memories: Spirit Possession, Power, and the Hauka in West Africa, New York: Routledge.

Thelen, Esther and Linda B. Smith (1994), A Dynamic Systems Approach to the Development of Cognition and Action, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Van den Bergh, Omer, Scott Vrana and Paul Eelen (1990), "Letters From the Heart: Affective Categorization of Letter Combinations in Typists and Nontypists," Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 16 (6),1153-1161.

Zaltman, Gerald and Robin Higie Coulter (1995), "Seeing the Voice of the Customer: Metaphor-Based Advertising Research," Journal of Advertising Research, 35 (4), 35-51.