I’ve long been interested in the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis, and how one’s language affects perceptions of space and color. Interestingly, there’s now some quantitative evidence that metaphors can have a strong influence on our perceptions. Primary metaphors, those that are so deeply embedded in our language that we aren’t usually consciously aware of them, are so strong that we confuse our basic physical senses with the things our language has linked with those senses metaphorically.

Bargh at Yale, along with Lawrence Williams, now at the University of Colorado, did studies in which subjects were casually asked to hold a cup of either iced or hot coffee, not knowing it was part of the study, then a few minutes later asked to rate the personality of a person who was described to them. The hot coffee group, it turned out, consistently described a warmer person–rating them as happier, more generous, more sociable, good-natured, and more caring–than the iced coffee group. The effect seems to run the other way, too: In a paper published last year, Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoffrey J. Leonardelli of the University of Toronto found that people asked to recall a time when they were ostracized gave lower estimates of room temperature than those who recalled a social inclusion experience.

In a paper in the current issue of Psychological Science, researchers in the Netherlands and Portugal describe a series of studies in which subjects were given clipboards on which to fill out questionnaires–in one study subjects were asked to estimate the value of several foreign currencies, in another they were asked to rate the city of Amsterdam and its mayor. The clipboards, however, were two different weights, and the subjects who took the questionnaire on the heavier clipboards tended to ascribe more metaphorical weight to the questions they were asked–they not only judged the foreign currencies to be more valuable, they gave more careful, considered answers to the questions they were asked.

Boston.com: Thinking Literally

The question is, how universal are primary metaphors between languages?