Metaphorically speaking: cognitive abilities and the production of figurative language

Mem Cognit. 2013 Feb;41(2):255-67. doi: 10.3758/s13421-012-0258-5.


Figurative language is one of the most common expressions of creative behavior in everyday life. However, the cognitive mechanisms behind figures of speech such as metaphors remain largely unexplained. Recent evidence suggests that fluid and executive abilities are important to the generation of conventional and creative metaphors. The present study investigated whether several factors of the Cattell-Horn-Carroll model of intelligence contribute to generating these different types of metaphors. Specifically, the roles of fluid intelligence (Gf), crystallized intelligence (Gc), and broad retrieval ability (Gr) were explored. Participants completed a series of intelligence tests and were asked to produce conventional and creative metaphors. Structural equation modeling was used to assess the contribution of the different factors of intelligence to metaphor production. For creative metaphor, there were large effects of Gf (β = .45) and Gr (β = .52); for conventional metaphor, there was a moderate effect of Gc (β = .30). Creative and conventional metaphors thus appear to be anchored in different patterns of abilities: Creative metaphors rely more on executive processes, whereas conventional metaphors primarily draw from acquired vocabulary knowledge.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intelligence / classification
  • Intelligence / physiology*
  • Male
  • Metaphor*
  • Vocabulary*
  • Young Adult