Much more recently, scientists have uncovered those roots in our biology. Turns out, metaphors are more than just figurative flourishes or explanatory shortcuts; they shape our thoughts, beliefs and actions.
Take the conceptual metaphor, “affection is warmth.” People who hold hot cups of coffee are more likely to judge strangers as friendly than those who get iced coffee. Or, “morality is purity”; more people will request antiseptic wipes when they’ve been asked to think about adultery or cheating than when they’ve pondered good deeds.
To solve this problem, Iarpa, the mad science unit of the intelligence community (or Darpa for spies), is asking universities and businesses to help them build a giant database of metaphors. The goal is to “exploit the use of metaphors by different cultures to gain insight into their cultural norms.”
Besides improving communication and interactions in a globalized world, metaphors might help us bridge cross-cultural gaps.
For example, the topic of morality. Americans are likely to think of morality in terms of rights, or things we “possess” or can be “deprived of” — “rights as IOUs.” In China, on the other hand, morality is usually conceived of as bounded space or concentric circles, so you can “overstep boundaries” or “hit the mark.” These two metaphors aren’t really compatible, but if we started talking about a moral right as a “right-of-way” (a path to move along without interference), we might have found a metaphor that carries weight in both cultures.