Do you ever wonder why we associate good things with up and bad things with down? Think about it. We say that , “things are looking up today,” and “I’m down in the dumps,” to express how we are feeling. We say that “he’s at the peak of his career,” and “she fell is status,” to describe social hierarchies. And almost always heaven is up in the sky while hell is down in the Earth. The more you think about it, the more obvious it becomes. These examples are merely linguistic and mental, though. How do our conceptions of up and down affect us physically?
In a recent study, Lawrence Sanna et al studied how elevation influences people’s charitable donations. To do this, three research assistants posed as salvation army bell ringers, went to a local mall and placed their contribution buckets in three locations: at the top of an escalator (high-condition), at the bottom of an escalator (low-condition) and in an area away from escalators (control-condition). Unaware of what the study was testing, the research assistants rang bells for two thirty minute sessions as over a thousand “participants” passed by and donated. The results were as predicted. In the researchers words, “shoppers who rode the up escalator (high-condition) contributed more often than those who rode down (low-condition) and the control condition… In short, experiencing elevated physical height – in this case by riding up vs. down mall escalators – increased the virtuous act of making real charitable contributions.” They followed up this experiment with three more that demonstrated that elevation influences people to be more helpful, compassionate and cooperative (you can read about those here).
Sanna’s work is part of a growing body of literature that examines how elevation influences people. In a 2009 study, Pablo Brinol et al found that “the direction of thoughts (positive/negative) on self-related attitudes” depended on how participants sat. This means that participants tended to evaluate themselves more positive when they sat with an erect back and pushed their chest out as opposed to when they sat slouched forward with their back curved. Moreover, Daniel Casasanto and Katinka Dijkstra found that when participants moved marbles upward they retrieved positive memories faster than negative ones. And, conversely, when they moved marbles downward they retrieved negative memories faster than positive ones. This finding demonstrates that there is a casual link between motion and emotion.
These studies are saying that we think of up as good and important and down as bad and not important. This seems obvious. But we forget that we were not born with up coupled with good/important and down coupled with bad/not important. So where did it come from?
One answer is grounded in the idea of the conceptual metaphor. Conceptual metaphors are “mappings across conceptual domains that structure our reasoning, our experience, and our everyday language.” In other words, metaphors constitute our physical and mental experience. Here’s an example I gave a few posts ago. When we say that something is over our heads to express the idea that we do not understand, we are drawing upon the physical inability to not see something over our heads and the mental feeling of uncertainty. According to Srini Narayanan, conceptual metaphors can be traced back to subjective judgments and primary experiences, and this is how we explain why we equate up with big and important (and the other way around): When we were young we found that “big things, e.g., parents, are important and can exert major forces on [us] and dominant [our] visual experience.” Over time, this relationship was reinforced and now it comes naturally to us, as if it was there all along.
Another, more general answer, is that the mind is embodied. This point, which I also made a few posts ago, means that our mental experiences are not confined to that lump of flesh between our ears. As I said then, the embodied mind, or embodied cognition holds that the nature of the brain is largely determined by the physical form of the human body. Experience, therefore, is not just an, “epiphenomenal side issue, but central to any understanding of the mind.” This is why our experience with big and important things is tied with up and small and unimportant things is tied with down.
So the takeaway isn’t just a nifty charity strategy, it is the simple lesson that your mental life is constituted by your physical experience; you are not your brain, in other words.