Sam Glucksberg, Speaking Figuratively

My job is a jail. Who hasn’t thought that, or something like it, at one time or another (APS employees being the clear exception, of course-we love our jobs). But this expression isn’t intended to actually invoke the image of someone chained to a desk behind bars. The figurative intent is immediately obvious.

Sam Glucksberg
Observer photo by Julie Katz

APS Fellow and Charter Member Sam Glucksberg, Princeton University, delivers the William James Lecture during the 2001 Eastern Psychological Association Annual Convention.

For researchers, this raises an interesting question: How do metaphors work? That is, how do we get to the non-literal meaning of this kind of language?

Understanding Figurative Language was literally (sorry, couldn’t resist) the topic of Sam Glucksberg’s APS William James Distinguished Lecture at the 2001 Eastern Psychological Association annual meeting. The William James lectures are intended to bring the best in psychological science to regional psychology meetings. Other William James speakers have included Stephen Ceci, John Jonides, and Robert Cialdini.

Glucksberg, a professor of psychology at Princeton University, talked about his research into how figurative language, such as metaphors and similes, can make literal meanings essentially defective. His research contradicts the conventional Standard Pragmatic Model, which holds that we process language in stages to arrive at the appropriate meaning. Those stages are: (1) Derive the literal meaning of the sentence; (2) Assess the interpretability of that meaning against its context; and (3) If the literal meaning does not make sense in context, search for a non-literal meaning that does make sense.

Glucksberg, an APS Fellow and Charter Member, argues that the literal meaning of a sentence isn’t necessarily the first place our minds go to. He suggests that metaphors (which our brains subconsciously convert into more easily digestible similes) can be better understood than the literal meanings. Glucksberg also deconstructs the conventional assumption that literal meaning is more easily understood than figurative speech.

For example, the phrase “some roads are snakes” does not mean that some roads that cars drive on are in fact slithering snakes. The phrase has no rational literal meaning. In this case, Glucksberg said, our brains make the metaphor an implicit simile – some roads are like snakes.

“Nominal metaphors such as ‘some roads are snakes’ or ‘my job is a jail’ are literally false, so we can convert them into a simile – “some jobs are like jails,” Glucksberg said. “This is true because all similes must be true. Any two things can always be likened to or matched in some way or another.”


The metaphoric comparison, as in “some roads are snakes,” defies literal logic and when processed literally, would only make sense in science fiction. Yet, this phrase does have an understandable meaning; it does elicit the image of a winding road. Thus, the figurative meaning is inherent, whereas the literal sense is out of mind.

Glucksberg asserted that comparisons are better understood by processing the comparison categorically. “One way to look at this is to consider apples and oranges,” Glucksberg explained. “People have said many times you can’t compare apples and oranges.”

However, by looking at the category “fruit,” apples and oranges can indeed be compared. They are alike in that they are round, edible, have seeds, and so forth. Broader comparisons can be made between two seemingly different things, such as oranges and insects, i.e. both are organic.


“Just as any two things can be alike in many ways, any one thing can be categorized in many different ways,” Glucksberg said.

Sometimes the name of an actual thing, like “shark,” becomes the name of a figurative category, Glucksberg said. Consider the statement, “My lawyer is a shark.” The implication is not that the lawyer has a large jaw; black, beady eyes; fins; and swims in the ocean. The image being conveyed is that of the lawyer as a predator. (Disclaimer: This is Glucksberg’s comparison, not the author’s, so any large-jawed, beady-eyed predatory lawyers can contact him directly.)

Is this peculiar strategy limited to figurative language? “No,” Glucksberg said. “This is a strategy that we use all the time in language to name categories for which we do not have verbal labels.”

In defense of his argument that literal meaning does not have priority, Glucksberg asserts that metaphor comprehension is both mandatory and automatic, in the same way literal language can be. With respect to the comparison process, metaphors are not understood via comparison. With respect to literal meanings, Glucksberg said they are always selectively used and not simply discarded. Instead, he suggests, they are actively inhibited in conversation in favor of the more rational, figurative meaning.

Comprehension time studies have shown that literal language is in no way easier than metaphorical language and that metaphorical language is not more difficult than literal language. Familiar idioms such as “kick the bucket” are understood faster in their idiomatic sense (in this case “to die”) than in the literal sense of striking the pail with one’s foot.

“Can people ignore metaphors?” Glucksberg asked. “The Standard Pragmatic Model argues that we don’t undertake an understanding of figurative language unless, and only if, the literal language doesn’t make sense in the context.”

But, he argues, the meaning of figurative speech cannot be ignored. To test this, he adapted the Stroop Interference Task1 to the case of metaphor comprehension using sentences instead of words and colors. The task was to judge the literal truth of different sentence types.

Participants were to identify the following sentences as true or false:
Some jobs are jails.
Some roads are snakes.
Some jobs are snakes.

Saying “no” always takes a little longer than saying “yes;” the figurative speech in the metaphor “some roads are snakes,” for example, took longer to determine literally “false.” People cannot ignore figurative meaning, said Glucksberg.       To test his theory that the literal meaning becomes inhibited by the figurative meaning, Glucksberg used three kinds of primes before target metaphors such as “some lawyers are sharks.”

“‘Shark’ used as the metaphor vehicle refers to a type of thing, whereas it literally refers to an actual predator,” Glucksberg said. “This is a case of what I call ‘dual reference’ where a single word refers both to an exemplar of a category and to the category which it exemplifies.”

First, neutral primes like the words “sharks” and “lawyers” preceded the sentence “some lawyers are sharks.” This had the effect of facilitating comprehension.

Then a statement such as, “some lawyers are married,” preceded the statement “some lawyers are sharks.” This was okay too, because lawyers can be married and still be sharks.

But when the same metaphor is preceded by “sharks can swim,’ this inspires the literal meaning and it takes longer to identify the subsequent metaphor, because, as Glucksberg said, “you’ve been lead to the literal referent instead of the metaphorical one.”

“Metaphors are understood directly as categorical assertions,” Glucksberg said. “When I say that my job is a jail, I mean it is not just like a jail, I mean it is a jail. Metaphors can be paraphrased as similes because the metaphor vehicle can refer either to the metaphor category, or to a literal exemplar.” This linguistic strategy is what Glucksberg means when he refers to dual reference.

1A familiar research tool in which research participants are given a list of names of colors that are written in a variety of different colors, not necessarily corresponding to the actual name. Participants are asked not to read the words, but to name the ink color. When the name of a color, i.e. “green,” is written in another color of ink, i.e. “yellow”, it becomes difficult to identify the color, because we cannot refuse to read.

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