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Metaphors matter: Differences noted between self-described ‘head’ and ‘heart’ people

As Nelson Mandela wisely noted, “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”

Nelson Mandela: “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”
REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Are you a “head” person or a “heart” person?

Obviously, each of us wants to think we’re both, for, as Nelson Mandela wisely noted, “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”

But if you had to describe where your “self” is located, would you say it’s in your heart or in your head?

As British psychologist and journalist Christian Jarrett points out in a recent article for New York Magazine’s “Science of Us” website, how we answer that question — which metaphor we choose to describe ourselves — may be remarkably revealing:

For example, people who said [in a series of studies conducted at North Dakota State University that] their “self” was located in their heart (about half the respondents) were more likely to be female, and “heart-locators” of either sex were more likely to rely on their emotions when making hypothetical moral decisions, such as how to respond to a sadistic prison guard who says he will kill your son and another prisoner unless you kill your own son. In this situation, heart-locators were more likely than “head-locators” to say they’d refuse to kill their own son — the more emotional and, in the specific circumstances, less rational choice because they were effectively condemning two people to die rather than one.

Other studies in the series found that people who saw their self as located in their brain tended to perform better on general-knowledge tests and to react less emotionally to stress. Of course, we refer to the heart and brain metaphorically all the time (“follow your heart” versus “use your head”) in a way that suggests we think of the heart as representing the emotions and the head as the seat of reason. These survey findings suggest that whether someone sees their essence as being located in their heart or brain tells us something literal about the person in question.  

Additional findings

A recent study in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes has uncovered even more nuanced differences between self-proclaimed “heart” people and “brain” people — differences that appear to influence positions on controversial medical issues.

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The study, which involved hundreds of students in India and in the United States, found that “heart-locators of either sex were more likely to endorse proposals for stricter abortion laws based on the initial detection of a heartbeat in the fetus, and to endorse the idea that a person’s death should be determined by when the heart stops beating rather than brain death,” writes Jarrett. “In a survey of U.S. college students, these researchers further established — perhaps unsurprisingly — that heart-locators are more likely to support heart-disease charities and that brain-locators are biased toward brain-based charities (such as an Alzheimer’s disease charity).”

That study’s findings also suggest that a key factor in whether we describe ourselves as “heart” or “head” people may involve whether we see ourselves as independent or interconnected with others. Writes Jarrett. 

Supporting this, people recruited in India — a “collectivist culture” — were more likely to locate their self in the heart. Moreover, when the researchers prompted American students to reflect on their independence (by having them read a paragraph full of first-person pronouns like me and I), they were more likely to locate their sense of self in the brain, whereas when the researchers prompted students to think of their social interconnectedness with a passage filled with pronouns like we and our, the opposite was true: These participants were more likely to locate their sense of self in the heart.

Possible new research area

Could this be a whole new area of research? Perhaps, says Jarrett.

“Where you locate your sense of self,” he writes, “might influence your aptitude for different occupations; it could influence the kind of marketing that moves you (emotional versus fact-based ads), and perhaps how you interpret other people — heart-locators might be drawn to strangers who seem warm, whereas you’d expect brain-locators to be more impressed by intellectual clout.”

You can read Jarrett’s article on the “Science of Us” website.