Metaphor usage highlights social bonds and increases understanding of others' emotions, suggests a new study.
Metaphor is a type of language that forms part of our daily conversations and communication. In this type of language, the literal or usual meaning of words and phrases is altered to convey some other, typically non-literal, meaning.
But metaphors can in fact help one to 'mind read', according to the new study.
"The research explains why we speak differently with friends and family than with strangers, and shows how we make friends and meet partners simply with the style of language we use," said Andrea Bowes of the University of Ontario in Canada.
"It provides novel evidence that metaphor plays a special role in orientating one to the mental state of others," said researcher Bowes.
The researchers showed that people were better able to infer the mental and emotional state of others after reading metaphors, whether embedded in passages or just by themselves.
The ability to understand what another person might be feeling or thinking is called Theory of Mind by experts.
One way that Theory of Mind is tested is through Reading the Mind in the Eye Test (RMET), in which participants have to correctly identify the emotions or mental state displayed in black and white photographs of 36 pairs of eyes.
The researchers found that reading metaphors led to better performance on RMET than reading literal sentence counterparts.
In one of the experiments, 39 participants first read either metaphorical or literal sentences as part of a story. They were then given a surprise Theory of Mind task.
The participants who read the metaphorical sentences were significantly better at identifying the correct emotions in the sets of pictures they were presented with in the Reading the Mind in the Eye Test.
"Reading fiction in general, and metaphors specifically, indeed promote people's ability to identify the emotions or mental state of others," said co-researcher Albert Katz of the same university.
The findings were published in the journal Memory and Cognition.