Interestingly, a lot of recent research suggests that these metaphors operate below the level of conscious thought. In one study, participants who were asked to recall a past event leaned slightly backwards, while participants who were asked to anticipate a future event leaned slightly forwards. Other studies have shown that our metaphorical use of temperature to describe people’s demeanors (as in, “He greeted me warmly,” or “He gave me the cold shoulder”) is so deep-seated, we actually conflate the two. When people are asked to recall a time when they were rejected by their peers, and then asked to estimate the temperature of the room they’re sitting in, their average estimate is several degrees colder than that of people who were asked to recall being welcomed by their peers. And in one study that asked participants to read the dossier of an imaginary job applicant and then rate his or her personality, participants who had just been holding a hot object rated the imaginary applicant as being friendlier, compared to participants who had just been holding a cold object.
I came across a great example of misleading metaphors recently via Julian Sanchez, who was complaining about the way policy discussions are often framed in terms of balancing a scale. People will talk about “striking a balance” between goods like innovation and stability, efficiency and equality, or privacy and security. But the image of two goods on opposite ends of a balance implies that you can’t get more of one without giving up the same amount of the other, and that’s often not true. “In my own area of study, the familiar trope of ‘balancing privacy and security’ is a source of constant frustration to privacy advocates,” Sanchez says, “because while there are clearly sometimes trade-offs between the two, it often seems that the zero-sum rhetoric of ‘balancing’ leads people to view them as always in conflict.”