Power, gender, and individual differences in spatial metaphor: the role of perceptual stereotypes and language statistics

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  • Northumbria University Newcastle


English speakers use vertical language to talk about power, such as when speaking of people being “at the bottom of the social hierarchy” or “rising to the top.” Experimental research has shown that people automatically associate higher spatial positions with more powerful social groups, such as doctors and army generals, compared to lower spatial positions, which are associated with relatively less powerful groups, such as nurses and soldiers. However, power as a social dimension is also associated with gender. Here, by means of a reaction-time study and a corpus study, we show that professions that display greater gender asymmetries, such as doctor/nurse, exhibit stronger vertical associations. Moreover, we show that people’s perception of vertical metaphors for power depends on their own gender, with male participants having stronger vertical biases than female participants, which we propose is due to the fact that men are more prone to thinking about power in bodily terms, and to associate it with physical dominance. Our results provide clear evidence for individual differences in metaphor comprehension, thus demonstrating empirically that the same metaphor is understood differently by different people.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)188-205
Number of pages18
JournalMetaphor and Symbol
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 15 Oct 2020