The Significance of Metaphors in Predicting Behavior

May 19, 2012


A reader commented on a Chinese metaphor referenced, guojin mintui: the state advances, the private sector retreats. He then listed several interesting examples from across cultures. But before we get to these and attempt to draw meaning, let’s discuss why metaphors are significant.

Metaphors reveal cultural beliefs, which in turn, drive behavior. Understand beliefs, and you can predict behavior given various scenarios. In turn, if you can predict behavior given a scenario, and you can create scenarios, then you can engineer outcomes.

The Defense Department’s IARPA program is seeking proposals for the automated discovery of metaphors for this reason, presumably to target groups of people who have beliefs counter to U.S. government interests. They see value in metaphors as well.

From the IARPA website:

For decision makers to be effective in a world of mass communication and global interaction, they must understand the shared concepts and worldviews of members of other cultures of interest.

Metaphors have been known since Aristotle (Poetics) as poetic or rhetorical devices that are unique, creative instances of language artistry (e.g., The world is a stage). Over the last 30 years, metaphors have been shown to be pervasive in everyday language and to reveal how people in a culture define and understand the world around them.

  • Metaphors shape how people think about complex topics and can influence beliefs.
  • Metaphors can reduce the complexity of meaning associated with a topic by capturing or expressing patterns.
  • Metaphors are associated with affect; affect influences behavior.
  • Research on metaphors has uncovered inferred meanings and worldviews of particular groups or individuals: Characterization of disparities in social issues and contrasting political goals; exposure of inclusion and exclusion of social and political groups; understanding of psychological problems and conflicts.

Now that the importance of metaphors has been established, as an exercise, let’s interpret and think about practical applications of the metaphors reader Mark listed.

guojin mintui: the state advances, the private sector retreats

This existence of this metaphor shows many in China are not experiencing the rewards of the China “miracle,” and indeed, are suffering as the state’s power grows. 

tadlis (persian): concealing the faults of goods on sale

Reveals the inability to trust products for sale in Iran, perhaps leaving open a business opportunity for certifications, or foreign brands.

tahu sama tahu (indonesian) “you know it,I know it” .. a verbal agreement b/w two people,one usually a govt official, to cheat the state.

Corruption is a problem in Indonesia, so foreigners need to go in knowing this when conducting business.

ataoso (central american-spanish): one who sees problems in everything

Evidently, a certain portion of the population is not happy; perhaps anti depressants would sell well.

muwaswas (arabic): to be obsessed with delusions

In the Arabic world, perhaps there are more skeptics of the rewards in the the afterlife (virgins) than an outsider would think.

Yerdengh-nga (australia): to clear off without telling anyone where you are going 

You may find yourself with an Australian friend, only to find he goes on a walk about.

These beliefs and issues exist in all cultures, but their prominence varies. An increase or decrease in usage, could be indicative of a trend. That being said, like any generalization, they do not apply to all. 

They are also interesting and entertaining! 

Further Reading:

Coup Rumors in China Have Deeper Meaning

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