According to the Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT), metaphors allow people to rely on concrete, familiar knowledge such as spatial experience to understand abstract concepts such as time. For example, many languages throughout the world tend to associate the front side of space with the future and the back side with the past. Abundant evidence has shown that people think about time according to the space-time mappings in their speech. However, recent lines of research have suggested that people may not spatialize time as their language suggests. According to the Temporal Focus Hypothesis, people’s implicit space-time mappings are shaped by their cultural attitudes toward time. Compared to Han Chinese, Qiang Chinese tend to focus more on past times and older generations and place more values on their tradition and culture. Thus, it can be hypothesized that Qiang Chinese, who focus more on the past, should be more likely to conceptualize the past as in front of them than Han Chinese.
In Experiment 1, we administered a “time diagram task” in which participants were presented with a sheet depicting a cartoon character seen from above with a box ahead of him and another behind him. Participants were told that the character visited a friend who loved plants yesterday, and tomorrow he would be going to visit a friend who loves animals (or vice versa, as event-to-space assignment was counterbalanced). Participants were asked to place “plant” and “animal” in the boxes. In Experiment 2, we used a Temporal Focus Scale to quantify the proposed difference in temporal focus between Han and Qiang Chinese. It consisted of 8 assertions denoting opinions about past- and future-related topics. In Experiment 3, Han and Qiang Chinese participants were asked to complete a time classification task. In this task, they categorized the words denoting past or future events by pressing a corresponding response key placed ahead or behind a starting point.
Results from Experiments 1 and 2 showed that Qiang participants, who tend to be more past-focused, were also more likely to place the future event in the box behind the character and the past event in the box ahead of him. By contrast, Han Chinese showed no preferences for past-in-front mapping or future-in-front mapping, as predicted by their equally high agreement with past focus and future focus items. Experiment 3 showed that Qiang Chinese showed a response facilitation when processing temporal words in a direction compatible to their implicit space-time mappings as shown in Experiment 1 (i.e., past is front and future is back). However, Han Chinese did not show a response facilitation because they may have the same preference for both past-in-front and future-in-front mappings.
There are two contrasting views on how people implicitly associate the past and future with the front and back. Metaphor Structure View posits that people think about time the way they talk about in their spoken metaphors. However, we found no evidence in current studies for supporting this view since the directions of implicit space-time mappings in Han and Qiang Chinese were different despite both using the same spoken metaphors; thus, it suggests a striking dissociation between temporal language and temporal thought. Our results appear to support the Temporal Focus Hypothesis, which suggests that people’s implicit space-time mappings are shaped by their cultural attitudes. Taken together, this research contributes to the exiting literature that within-cultural differences (e.g., ethnicity) should be considered when studying the relationship between temporal focus and implicit space-time mappings.
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