Structure-mapping in metaphor comprehension

Phillip Wolff*, Dedre Gentner

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

86 Scopus citations


Metaphor has a double life. It can be described as a directional process in which a stable, familiar base domain provides inferential structure to a less clearly specified target. But metaphor is also described as a process of finding commonalities, an inherently symmetric process. In this second view, both concepts may be altered by the metaphorical comparison. Whereas most theories of metaphor capture one of these aspects, we offer a model based on structure-mapping that captures both sides of metaphor processing. This predicts (a) an initial processing stage of symmetric alignment; and (b) a later directional phase in which inferences are projected to the target. To test these claims, we collected comprehensibility judgments for forward (e.g., "A rumor is a virus") and reversed ("A virus is a rumor") metaphors at early and late stages of processing, using a deadline procedure. We found an advantage for the forward direction late in processing, but no directional preference early in processing. Implications for metaphor theory are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1456-1488
Number of pages33
JournalCognitive Science
Issue number8
StatePublished - Nov 2011


  • Analogy
  • Career of metaphor
  • Embodied metaphor
  • Metaphor
  • Structural alignment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Artificial Intelligence


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