Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Big Surprise! Clichés Can Make Our Eyes Widen Like Saucers

Common metaphors elicit real-time engagement, as indexed by pupil dilation.

Key points

  • Metaphors such as "juggling many tasks" or "tossing out ideas" are often used in daily conversation as shorthand to convey abstract concepts.
  • When writing formally, educators teach us to avoid common metaphors, cliché phrases, and overused idioms like "the early bird gets the worm."
  • But new pupillometry research suggests that readers' eyes widen and their attention perks up when sentences contain conventional metaphors.
Source: pathdoc/Shutterstock

When my daughter was learning to read and write, we used to have fun Googling the origin and exact definition of overused phrases and clichés, such as “raining cats and dogs,” “tip of the iceberg,” “bite the bullet,” “double whammy,” “kill two birds with one stone,” etc. Idioms made her eyes widen and piqued her curiosity about how common metaphorical sayings can communicate abstract concepts quickly.

Unsurprisingly, when she started high school this year, her English teacher specifically advised students not to use idioms or clichés when writing school papers because they show a “lack of original thought” and can make the writer seem unimaginative. Based on conventional wisdom, this would be viewed as good educational advice; most academics and scholars frown upon using metaphorical clichés in formal writing.

Want to engage readers? Idioms could be an ace up your sleeve.

New research from Princeton University upsets the applecart by suggesting that writers may want to think twice about giving idioms and conventional metaphors the cold shoulder. (I know. Enough is enough! I’ll stop beating a dead horse by overusing clichés from here on out.) These findings (Mon et al., 2021) were recently published online and will appear in the December issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Memory and Language.

For this study, first author Serena Mon and colleagues used state-of-the-art pupillometry techniques that measured split-second changes in pupil size to see when readers were paying more attention to a sentence.

Real-time pupil dilation measurements showed more focused attention (i.e., greater engagement) when study participants read sentences with conventional, everyday metaphors as opposed to concrete descriptions or literal paraphrases without any clichés.

For example, the researchers compared changes in pupil size as study participants read three similar but slightly different sentences. The first sentence contained a conventional metaphor such as “out of my hands.” Next, a literal paraphrase like “out of my control” was used. Lastly, the sentence contained a concrete description using similar keywords.

Of note: 180 of these triplicate sentences (60 metaphors, 60 literal translations, and 60 concrete phrases) are publicly available on the Open Science Framework.

Metaphors give sentences richer meaning and boost readers’ engagement.

“Conventional metaphors (e.g., a firm grasp on an idea) are extremely common. A possible explanation for their ubiquity is that they are more engaging, evoking more focused attention than their literal paraphrases (e.g., a good understanding of an idea),” the authors write in their paper’s abstract. “When metaphorical and literal sentences were compared directly in survey data, participants judged metaphorical sentences to convey ‘richer meaning,’ but not more information.”

 Serena Mon, Mira Nencheva, Francesca Citron, Casey Lew-Williams and Adele Goldberg (Editorial use only).
Serena Mon and a team of psychology researchers at Princeton discovered that pupils consistently dilate more in response to metaphors than literal or concrete statements, demonstrating that even everyday metaphors—sometimes called clichés—engage our brains more than plain language.
Source: Courtesy of the authors: Serena Mon, Mira Nencheva, Francesca Citron, Casey Lew-Williams and Adele Goldberg (Editorial use only).

As mentioned, Mon et al. found that while reading metaphorical sentences, people’s pupils widened; bigger pupils are associated with heightened interest and greater engagement. “Pupils dilate in response to increased activation of the sympathetic nervous system evoked by focused attention to task-relevant stimuli or engagement,” the authors explain.

“The concrete terms used in metaphors offer us a way to ground our abstract thoughts in the physical world. The current work encourages us to lean into metaphors to engage with one another more closely,” senior author Adele Goldberg, associate chair of Princeton’s Department of Psychology and faculty member in their linguistics program, said in a news release.

“Some people feel these types of very conventional metaphorical expressions are clichés to be avoided, but insofar as they are more engaging, there is no reason to shy away from them,” she concluded. “Maybe that’s a moral for teachers or for parents. If we want to engage our students or our children, these can help, so don’t avoid them.”


Sentence "triples" to assess the cognitive impact of metaphors (IMAGE) via EurekAlert

Serena K. Mon, Mira Nencheva, Francesca M.M. Citron, Casey Lew-Williams, Adele E. Goldberg. "Conventional Metaphors Elicit Greater Real-Time Engagement Than Literal Paraphrases or Concrete Sentences." Journal of Memory and Language (First available online: September 20, 2021) DOI: 10.1016/j.jml.2021.104285