AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: metaphors and the mind.
RS: Avi, if I say "bulls and bears," what comes to mind?
AA: The zoo?
RS: Well yes, but I could also be talking about the stock market. In a bull market, stock prices rise; in a bear market, they fall. Metaphors are great; a word or two can say a mouthful. But not all metaphors are alike.
AA: Some are known as agent metaphors. These are words that describe living things. Others are called object metaphors. They tend to be used for non-living things.
RS: So what? Well, once upon a time, we had to be able to think pretty fast if something was alive or not. Researchers believe that our brains are wired to respond to the path on which an object moves.
MICHAEL MORRIS: "If it's moving downhill, well, it could be a rock rolling, [or] it could be an animal. But at least in the environment where we evolved, if something was moving uphill, that's a pretty good cue that it's alive."
AA: Professor Michael Morris is a psychologist in the business school at Columbia University in New York. He is interested in the metaphors used in the media to describe movements in stock prices. He says the choice of words can influence investor expectations.
RS: Recently Professor Morris led a study of three groups of college students. Each group received graphs of stock market activity along with one of three versions of a commentary. One version described the price trends with agent metaphors -- words like "jumped" or "climbed."
AA: Another used object metaphors, which made it seem that the movements were the result of external forces. Prices might have "dropped off a cliff" or "bounced back."
RS: Professor Morris says the third version was free of metaphors. Instead, it used plain words like "the market increased" or "the market decreased."
MICHAEL MORRIS: "What we found was that participants who had been exposed to the agent metaphors were more likely to forecast, or predict, that the market trend they had observed one day would continue on the following day."
AA: "Whether it was prices going up or prices going down."
MICHAEL MORRIS: "That's right. So that was one thing that we wanted to establish: basically, that the content of commentary does affect the judgments that investors make. But then there was this other point that we were trying to establish that I think makes the first point more dramatic or consequential."
RS: That is, when do commentators choose so-called "agentic" metaphors as opposed to others, or none at all? Professor Morris and his team analyzed the language on a cable television stock-market program.
MICHAEL MORRIS: "When there's an uptrend, stock commentators are more likely to explain that uptrend in agentic language, and thereby may lead investors to think of that trend as a signal about tomorrow, as an uptrend that indicates uptrends will continue tomorrow. Whereas when there is a downtrend, commentators are less likely to describe it in this agentic language that would make investors think that the downtrend is going to continue.
"What's interesting about this finding is that journalists are not intentionally -- they're not aware that their choice of metaphor may have this impact. But we know from politics, for example, that there are think tanks that do nothing but try to construct simple frames or metaphors that will persuade people to believe in a certain policy position."
AA: "So your advice to the average investor?"
MICHAEL MORRIS: "Be very careful about (avoiding) the mistake of buying right after the stock market has gone up. It's much better, all things equal, to make your purchases on a day when the market has just gone downward, so that you're buying low instead of making your purchase after a day when the market has just gone upwards and you're buying high."
AA: "And let me ask you one more question: What advice do you have [for] stock market commentators?"
MICHAEL MORRIS: "Well, I sympathize with them greatly because they can't do what a classical economist would recommend, which is to simply say 'There was another random walk on the market today.'"
RS: Columbia University Professor Michael Morris spoke to us from Hawaii, where he just presented his findings at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management.
AA: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our segments are on the Web at voanews.com/wordmaster. And our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.