Is sadness blue? The problem of using figurative language for emotions on psychological tests

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Behavior Research Methods





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Psychological tests sometimes include figurative language like I feel blue. However, figurative language may not mean the same thing cross-culturally. Previous research found cross-cultural evidence for 14 conceptual metaphors and metonymies for emotions (e.g., sadness is blue). Our two studies asked participants (total n = 795) in the USA and India whether happiness, sadness, anger, and fear are associated with certain descriptors (blue, down, bright, etc.). Most participants in both countries endorsed ten of the 14 hypothesized associations; however, the percentage of participants endorsing an association was often far from 100 %. For example, in the USA, only 71.7 % associated hot with anger and only 65.9 % associated blue with sadness. Moreover, descriptors were often associated with more than one emotion. Furthermore, only two associations (happiness is up and bright) were endorsed by more than 90 % of participants in both countries and had descriptors that were not associated with additional emotions. We conclude that figurative language is often ambiguous and should be used with caution on psychological tests unless there is evidence the language is understood cross-culturally. Advice to this effect is currently lacking from psychometrics textbooks and should be added.

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