Shining a light on why sensory metaphors are so popular

A warm welcome to the latest Digest post, dear reader. You won’t find it hard work – my editor made some small changes, eliminating any sour notes to ensure a light read.

Did you notice how the metaphor phrases scattered through my previous sentences each relate to a sense – touch, sight, taste? This is common to many popular phrases, and to understand why, a new article draws on a combination of the Google Books dataset and a series of lab experiments. The research reveals that sensory metaphors owe their cultural success to the fact that we find sensory information easier to process and recall.

The first study by Egi Akpinar and Jonah Berger identified a set of 32 sensory metaphors in the adjective + noun structure I used above, each matched to a further three non-metaphorical equivalent phrases (e.g. “warm welcome” versus “friendly welcome”, “kind welcome”, “sincere welcome”). The researchers used Google Books’ frequency data on 5 million books to track the popularity of all these phrases since 1800, finding sensory metaphors enjoyed a steeper rise in popularity than their non-metaphorical equivalents.

To explore why, the researchers gave a subset of the metaphorical phrases together with their non-metaphorical equivalent phrases to 229 students. The students then rated each phrase on two criteria: How strongly did it relate to the senses? And does it have many or fewer associations with other ideas? After a filler task, the students tried to recall the phrases, and were able to remember only 18 per cent of the non-metaphorical phrases, but 28 per cent of the sensory metaphors, which also received higher ratings in sensory quality and associations. The higher its ratings, the better a phrase was remembered, and, critically, the steeper the increase in the popularity of that phrase in the Google Books data set.

This fits Akpinar and Berger’s hypothesis that cultural success stories are in debt to their psychological convenience. In their account, we will favour well-remembered concepts and phrases: those that are processed more automatically – as sensory knowledge is known to be – and that come to mind more easily. Sensory metaphors can be triggered by real-world phenomena: for example, bright future from the sight of a morning, torch or star. These small gains in popularity then snowball, as we lean on better-known phrases rather than the obscure, so that our listeners can understand us.

One note of caution is that the researchers may simply be backing winners, as sensory metaphors that were true failures would be unknown, and wouldn’t make it into their set of stimuli. To address this, the next study included each and every sensory metaphor found in the corpus of Jane Austin – 226 in all – including such gems as “clamorous happiness” and “delicious harmony”, to see what characterised the phrases that succeeded versus those that did not. One hundred and thirty-five students studied, rated and recalled these metaphors, and those that enjoyed a rise to popularity in the Google dataset were, again, those rated higher in sensory quality and associations, and more easily recalled by participants.

It’s great to see research leveraging big cultural data and marrying it with experimental technique. “We study how the senses shape language,” the authors begin their general discussion, and given the clear evidence they present, it’s hard to disagree.


Akpinar, E., & Berger, J. (2015). Drivers of cultural success: The case of sensory metaphors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109 (1), 20-34 DOI: 10.1037/pspa0000025

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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