Relative Evaluation of Location: How Spatial Frames of Reference Affect What We Value

AbstractHow we mentally represent spatial relations is known to have effects on cognitive processes such as inferences, co-speech gesture, or memorizing. In addition, spatial positions often serve as metaphors that carry valence. For instance, “moving up the social ladder, “getting it right”, or being “in front” feels certainly better than “moving down”, “having two left feet”, or “lagging behind”. Spatial position, however, depends on perspective, more concretely on which frame of reference (FoR) one adopts—and hence on cross-linguistically diverging preferences. What is conceptualized as “in front” in one variant of the relative FoR (e.g., translation) is “behind” under another variant (reflection), and vice versa. Do such diverging conceptualizations of an object’s location also lead to diverging evaluations? We tested this with speakers of German, Chinese, and Japanese using an Implicit Association Test (IAT). Data from two studies suggest that across languages the object “in front of” another object is evaluated more positively than the one “behind”, and that both location and evaluation depend on the adopted FoR. In other words: linguistically imparted FoR preferences appear to impact on evaluative processes.

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