Light bulbs or seeds? Metaphor and understanding genius
December 5, 2016
Ideas are commonly described using metaphors; a bright idea appears like a “light bulb” or the “seed” of an idea takes root. However, little is known about how these metaphors may shape beliefs about ideas or the role of effort versus genius in their creation, an important omission given the known motivational consequences of such beliefs. We explore whether the light bulb metaphor, although widespread and intuitively appealing, may foster the belief that innovative ideas are exceptional occurrences that appear suddenly and effortlessly—inferences that may be particularly compatible with gendered stereotypes of genius as male. Across three experiments, we find evidence that these metaphors influence judgments of idea quality and perceptions of an inventor’s genius. Moreover, these effects varied by the inventor’s gender and reflected prevailing gender stereotypes: Whereas the seed (vs. light bulb) metaphor increased the perceived genius of female inventors, the opposite pattern emerged for male inventors.
The above is the abstract from a new article in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, Light Bulbs or Seeds? How Metaphors for Ideas Influence Judgments About Genius, co-authored by Kristen Elmore, postdoctoral associate in the Program for Research on Youth Development and Engagement in the BCTR. A recent New York Times article on the findings further discusses the light bulb vs. seed metaphor in the context of gender:
These two metaphors are often used to describe scientific discovery and what we perceive as genius. Along with them come ingrained, subconscious associations that may have unintended consequences, according to a study published Friday in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Researchers found that we find an idea more or less exceptional depending on the metaphors used to describe it. And not just that: Those metaphors had different effects depending on the gender of the idea’s creator.
Kristen Elmore, a developmental and social psychologist at Cornell University and lead author of the study, saw metaphors about ideas everywhere. She saw light bulbs on bulletin boards at schools and in student essays about inventions. Less frequently, young people were exposed to metaphors that describe nurturing ideas like seedlings.
Dr. Elmore and her colleague, Myra Luna-Lucero, a researcher at Columbia Teachers College, set out to study whether these metaphors carry unexplored implications. In a series of three experiments, more than 700 adult men and women, mostly in their 30s, were exposed to a variety of male and female inventors whose ideas were described as emerging like light bulbs or nurtured seedlings.
They found that people tend to rate discoveries that came about “like a light bulb” as more exceptional than those that are “nurtured like seeds.” But not when the inventor was a woman. In that case, people rated “nurtured” ideas as more exceptional.
Light Bulbs or Seeds? How Metaphors for Ideas Influence Judgments About Genius - Social Psychological and Personality Science