Communication is fundamental to social interaction. Language is
probably the most important medium of human communication, whether in
the form of speech or the written word. When the main goal is to share
precise information, the messages must be accurate and easy to interpret
literally. However, when the goal is to communicate ambiguity and
perhaps also provoke affect, the message may be conveyed implicitly
rather than explicitly. This can be accomplished using the linguistic
devices of metaphor and irony.
Metaphors, which have appeared in ancient texts such as
Homer's Odyssey and the Hindu Vedas, convey meaning indirectly
using a form of analogy. According to Low (2002), their power lies in
contradiction and ambiguity. For example, in Shakespeare's classic
statement "All the world's a stage", at a primary,
literal level, we have an obvious contradiction, since a stage is
clearly not equal to the world; however, at a secondary, or figurative
level, we have a form of analogy or comparison, in which both concepts
become fused and their shared qualities are made apparent.
Like metaphor, irony also has a long history, having appeared in
Ancient Greek comedy and as a device employed by Socrates (Pexman,
2008). According to Pexman, irony is a nonliteral language that makes
salient a discrepancy between expectations and reality. Consequently,
contradiction is also central to irony. Situational irony (also known as
cosmic irony) refers to occasions when the actual outcome of events is
contrary to the expected outcome. For example, the
"unsinkable" Titanic not only went down, but did so on its
maiden voyage. Verbal irony, for its part, designates instances in which
an individual states the opposite of what he or she truly thinks (e.g.
"that's the best idea I've heard in years!"). As
with metaphor, we are faced with a fundamental ambiguity, where one is
challenged by the simultaneous, yet contradictory statements : A = B
(this idea is great), and A [not equal to] B (this idea is not great).
Researchers have investigated the psychological processes that
underlie the comprehension of metaphor and irony. For example, studies
of brain imaging have shown distinctive patterns of activity associated
with exposure to these linguistic devices (Coulson & Van Petten,
2002; Regel, Gunter, & Friederici, 2011). In addition, insights have
been gained from populations such as young children and people with
autism or brain damage who have difficulty processing nonliteral
language (Pexman, 2008).
It is clear that metaphor and irony cannot be fully appreciated by
rational processes such as standard verbal intelligence, because logical
reasoning cannot admit the simultaneous existence of two contradictory
elements. According to Low (2002), the power of metaphor and irony comes
from their ability to call "upon the creativity of the reader as
well as of the poet to contain the ambiguity" (p. 198). The link
between metaphor and creative thinking was identified long ago by
Aristotle (Glicksohn, Kraemer, & Yisraeli, 1993), but the idea that
contradiction is important is also consistent with Koestler's
(1964) notion of creativity, which he says arises when a single
situation or idea is perceived in "two self-consistent but
habitually incompatible frames of reference" (p. 35).
Psychologists have conducted extensive research on creativity,
discussing how it should be defined, how it should be measured and how
it is related to standard intelligence (Batey, Furnham, &
Safiullina, 2011; Kaufman & Plucker, 2011; Nusbaum & Silvia,
2011). Some of the most important contributions to these questions have
been made by Guilford (1967), who integrated creativity into his
structure of intellect model as a process of divergent production (or
divergent thinking) in which people generate answers to open-ended
questions (Baer & Kaufman, 2006). Indeed, some IQ tests contain
subtests that tap this process (Kaufman, Kaufman, Lichtenberger, 2011).
If understanding metaphor and irony requires nonliteral processing
that requires some creativity, then the two skills should be related.
This idea received support from a study by Glicksohn et al. (1993), who
found significant correlations of .43 and .54 between the Barron
Symbolic Equivalence Test (measuring metaphoric thinking) and the
Alternate Uses Test (measuring ideational fluency/creativity). One
purpose of the present study is to examine whether the ability to
identify metaphor and irony is related to a person's creativity. It
was predicted that the correlations found by Glicksohn et al. would be
As noted above, implicit techniques such as metaphor and irony can
be employed to convey meaning, but they may also have a greater overall
impact on the listener or reader than explicit or literal communication
(Wicker, 1975). The full impact of metaphor and irony requires that the
message be cognitively understood (identified), but it also may require
that the message is subjectively appreciated, and that this appreciation
is accompanied by a positive change in affect. Consequently, a second
goal of this study was to examine not only the ability to identify
metaphor and irony, but also the appreciation of it and the possibility
of a positive mood change.
It was argued above that the ability to identify metaphor and irony
may be related to creativity. Recently, it has been suggested that
creativity itself may be rooted in a person's cognitive development
(Wu & Chiou, 2008). Wu and Chiou point out that creativity requires
more than formal logical reasoning and argue that it may depend on
another stage of thinking, postformal reasoning. Indeed, they suggest
that postformal thinking provides both cognitive and affective support
for creativity. Commons, Bresette, and Ross (2008) take a more
restrictive view of creativity, distinguishing it from originality, but
they propose that high levels of creativity as represented by scientific
innovation also require postformal thinking.
Postformal reasoning emerged from a movement in the 1970's
that expanded upon the Piagetian view on formal thought (Marchand,
2001). As noted by Marchand (2001), many theories were developed (e.g.
by Riegel, Sinnott and Kramer) based on the notion that adult thought
was distinguished by the ability to accept and integrate a variety to
truths that are context-dependent and may even be incompatible. This
contrasts with the adolescent's need to arrive at a single final
correct answer or truth.
The central, revolutionary belief in this movement was that formal
operational thought, which, according to Piaget (1970-72, p.6),
"constitutes the essence of the logic of educated adults, as well
as the basis of the elementary forms of scientific thought," was
not the ultimate stage in cognitive development. In particular, Kramer
(1983) proposed that there were three recurrent themes underlying the
"postformal operational" models, as they came to be known:
"(a) awareness of the relativistic nature of knowledge, (b)
acceptance of contradiction, and (c) integration into the dialectical
whole" (Kramer, Kahlbaugh, & Goldston, 1992, p. 181). This
theorizing by Kramer culminated in her Social Paradigm Belief Inventory
(SPBI; Kramer et al., 1992), which categorizes beliefs about the
intrapersonal (personality development), interpersonal (personal
relationships) and societal (behavior in society general) domains into
one of three general forms of thought, or worldviews.
The first worldview is absolute thinking, or formal thinking, which
is characterized by a fixed view of the world, dualistic thought
patterns (e.g. good vs. bad, true vs. false), and the assumption of
causal determinism (Kramer et al., 1992, p. 181). When contradiction
arises, it is seen as incorrect and undesirable (Chiou, 2008). This
worldview seems to be most prominent in young adolescents (Kahlbaugh
& Kramer, 1995). Postformal thinking is divided into two stages. The
first postformal stage, and the second of Kramer's three general
forms of thought, is relativistic thinking, which was defined from
Pepper's (1942) contextualist worldview. According to this mode of
thought, knowledge is influenced by context, which is continually
changing (Kramer et al., 1992, p.181). The relativistic position is one
without any fixed point of reference, where contradiction is an inherent
part of understanding, but with no possibility of resolution, because
opposite worldviews are seen as irreconcilable. However, it is accepted
as inevitable (Chiou, 2008). It is thought to be most prominent in older
adolescents or young adults (Kahlbaugh & Kramer, 1995), for example
college students (Chiou, 2008).
Relativistic thinking is considered to be a postformal stage, but
it is not the most advanced. This occurs with dialectical thinking,
which is the second stage of postformal thinking and the third of the
three general forms of thought. It represents the culmination of all
cognitive development and, according to Kahlbaugh and Kramer (1995),
becomes dominant in middle-aged and older adults. According to Kramer et
al. (1992), it integrates relativistic thinking and goes beyond it in
recognizing that both sides of contradictions are interrelated, thus
reflecting an underlying unity. Resolution of conflict thus becomes
possible, and leads to temporary stability (called the dialectical
whole). The crystallization of the dialectical whole, however, is
constantly challenged by the arrival of new challenges. This cycle of
change, which moves between tension and resolution, is seen as
perpetual, dynamic, and evolving.
Other theorists have also expressed their views on the nature of
postformal thought. For example, Kallio and Liitos (2009), in their
review of postformal thinking, point out that it involves emotion,
social-cognitive development, including development of the self, and
even spiritual development. Cartwright, Galupo, Tyree, and Jennings
(2009) explain that postformal thinking is a more advanced form of
thinking that adds subjective experience, particularly of social and
contextual information, to formal reasoning. These ideas have been
developed in detail by Sinnott (1998), who argues that beyond formal
operational thought there is a maturing process that she terms the
"logic of wisdom." This more complex form of thinking is
designed to combat alienation and is applied by individuals not only to
their work environments but also to their social roles and to their
interpersonal relationships (Sinnott, 1998). Rather than seeking some
defined end point, adults attempt to achieve a homeostatic balance in a
dynamic manner that resembles a dance (Sinnott, 2003). In addition, like
Kramer, Sinnot states that post-formal thinking permits the processing
of inconsistency. Complexities are understood and paradoxical
relationships are accepted (Griffin, Gooding, Semesky, Farmer, Mannchen,
& Sinnott (2009). Notably, also like Kramer, Sinnott has developed a
scale to measure postformal thinking, the Postformal Thought Scale
(Cartwright et al., 2009).
Ideas about postformal thought have also been elaborated and
applied to the educational setting, particularly to the training of
teachers. According to Kincheloe and Steinberg (1993), the framework for
the postformal way of thinking includes seeing the world as a text,
connecting logic and emotion, and uncovering how power helps to shape
how we represent our world. In particular, Kincheloe, Steinberg and
Villaverde (1999) state that their framework assumes that unequal power
relations in schools and in society in general undermine democratic
life. Given these ideas, it is not surprising that they argue that the
goal of postformal thinking is to permit an active struggle for social
justice. They also criticize the technocratic perspective that blindly
relies on the scientific method and sees learning as a stimulus-response
process. Instead, they argue for "nonlinear holism" as a way
of thinking that transcends simple ideas of cause and effect. They
recommend that teachers concentrate on the why of teaching, not the how,
and that both students and teachers embrace conflict as a positive
developmental step. Ultimately, cognitive development is an act of
emotional commitment leading to political change.
These theorists share the idea that postformal thinking is a more
advanced form of thought than formal thinking. Kramer emphasizes the
cognitive and interpersonal aspects, particularly how contradiction is
dealt with. Sinnott also points how various truths, including paradox,
are accepted. Some theorists mention emotion (Kallio & Liitos,
Kincheloe & Steinberg), and others include social experience
(Cartwright et al., Kallio & Liitos, Sinnott) and application to
social change (Kincheloe & Steinberg).
However, Marchand (2001) questions whether postformal thinking
should be seen as an additional stage of thought. First, he argues that
Piaget's description of the stage of formal operations is
considerably more sophisticated than critics realize and actually
includes many of the characteristics attributed to postformal thinking.
Secondly, he presents Piaget's criteria for the concept of a stage
and argues that the descriptions of postformal thinking do not clearly
satisfy them, implying that it cannot be regarded as a fifth stage of
cognitive development. In addition, he suggests that there are different
versions of what postformal thinking means and that research on
postformal thinking is inconclusive. Kallio and Liitos (2009) are also
skeptical about a fifth stage and cite similar reasons: conceptual
difficulties and a lack of empirical evidence. Like Marchand, they
recommend that if there is a kind of thinking beyond formal operations,
then it should simply be termed "adult cognition" rather than
Given these varied ideas and criticisms, the third and major
purpose of the present study was to provide a new test of the idea of
postformal thinking, particularly as described by Kramer, whose
conceptualization provides clearly testable hypotheses with a particular
scale. As observed above, Kramer et al.'s (1992) analysis indicates
that appreciation of contradiction and ambiguity are characteristic of
the postformal (relativistic and dialectical) modes of thought. Because
it has been argued that metaphor and irony are based on contradiction
and ambiguity, it follows that they should be positively related to
postformal thought and negatively related to formal thought. The present
study was designed to examine this possibility.
As observed earlier, Wu and Chiou (2008) hypothesized that
creativity may also be related to postformal reasoning. Relativistic
thinking should be a source of novelty, and dialectical thinking, in
which contradiction is seen as a source of new ideas, should also
encourage creativity. Indeed, they surmised that strict formalistic
reasoning, with its insistence on the validity of a single correct
answer to a problem, may even act in opposition to creativity. To
investigate these ideas with a sample of undergraduate students
("late adolescents", mean age 22 years), they administered
Kramer's SPBI to measure stage of cognitive development and the
Divergent Thinking Test (DTT) to measure creativity. In this version of
the test, participants completed unfinished drawings that were
subsequently rated on six aspects of creativity. They examined the
relationship between scores on the two tests in two ways. First, they
correlated formal scores, relativistic scores and dialectical scores
with creativity scores. As predicted, they found positive correlations
for relativistic and for dialectical thinking, although the correlations
across the six aspects of creativity for dialectical scores were higher
(.37 to .44 compared to .12 to .21). In addition, formal thinking scores
were negatively correlated with creativity (-.48 to -.63). Second, they
classified each participant as a formal (n = 155) or postformal (n =
231) thinker and then compared the two groups on creativity, firstly
with a MANOVA across all six aspects of creativity and then with
individual comparison at each level. As predicted, they found that
postformal thinkers scored higher on all aspects of creativity than
formal thinkers. In a more recent study, Yang, Wan and Chiou (2010)
adopted a similar procedure. Because they argued that the third stage of
postformal thinking developed in "young adulthood", their
participants were older than those in the first study (mean age 32 years
vs. 22 years), and they only investigated formal thinking and
dialectical thinking. However, their results were consistent with those
of the first study: dialectical thinking was correlated positively with
creativity (.47 to .51), formal thinking was correlated negatively with
creativity (-.41 to .51), and dialectical thinkers (n = 190) scored
higher than formal (n = 264) thinkers on all six aspects of creativity.
Although it was not the primary focus of the present investigation, the
relationships between formal thinking, postformal thinking and
creativity were also examined here. We predicted that the results of
Chiou and colleagues would be replicated.
Summary of Goals and Procedures of the Present Study
In the present study with undergraduate students, we also
administered the Social Paradigm Belief Inventory (SPBI) to measure
formal and postformal thinking and the Divergent Thinking Test (DTT) to
measure creativity. However, because our interest was in verbal metaphor
and irony, we used a verbal version of the DTT in which participants
generated uses for objects, rather than the incomplete figure version
employed by Chiou and colleagues. Hoping to replicate their results, it
was predicted that postformal thinking would be positively related to
creativity and that formal thinking would be negatively related to
However, and most importantly, the main purpose of the present
study was to extend the previous research on postformal thinking and
creativity by adding a test to measure the ability to objectively
identify metaphor and irony. Based on the arguments presented above
concerning metaphor and irony, and on the results of Chiou and
colleagues for creativity, our major prediction was that the ability to
identify metaphor and irony would be positively related to postformal
thinking and negatively related to formal thinking.
As noted above, it was also speculated that complete sensitivity to
metaphor and irony might involve not only identification or
understanding but also subjective appreciation and emotional change.
Another novel feature of the present study was that it included a scale
to measure the subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony. This was
added in an attempt to capture the full impact of these two linguistic
devices. From previous research, it was tentatively predicted that the
appreciation of metaphor and irony, like the ability to identify it,
would be positively related to postformal thinking and negatively
related to formal thinking. In addition, to investigate emotional change
(change in affect), a measure of mood was administered before and after
the text containing metaphor and irony. Because any subjective
appreciation of metaphor and irony would probably be a positive
experience, positive mood change was investigated. In addition, because
postformal thought has also been connected to emotion (e.g., Kallio
& Liitos, 2009), it was tentatively predicted that the relationships
between mood changes on the one hand and postformal thought and formal
thought on the other, would follow the same pattern as the corresponding
relationships for identification and appreciation of metaphor and irony.
That is, positive mood change would be positively related to postformal
thinking but would be negatively related to formal thinking.
Therefore, both the subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony
and mood change were expected to be related to formal and postformal
thinking in the same manner as the ability to identify metaphor and
irony. Both of these predictions follow from the assumption that
subjective appreciation and mood change would depend directly on the
ability to identify metaphor and irony. Consequently, it was also
expected that both subjective variables would be positively related to
the ability to identify metaphor and irony.
Although not the central purpose of the present study, it was also
possible to investigate the relationship between creativity and the
ability to identify metaphor and irony. Based on the logical analysis of
these two skills, and from the results obtained by Glicksohn et al.
(2009), it was expected that they would be positively correlated.
Notably, Glicksohn measured creativity (ideational fluency) with the
Alternate Uses Test, which is similar to the DTT employed here. However,
they measured metaphoric thinking with the Barron Symbolic Equivalence
Test, whereas we employed a metaphor and irony test that was constructed
for this study.
Finally, as noted above, Kahlbaugh and Kramer (1995) claim that the
three worldviews follow a course of development in which they
predominate at different ages: formal thinking in early adolescence,
relativistic thinking in late adolescence/young adulthood and
dialectical thinking in middle to older adulthood. In the study by Wu
and Chiou (2008), scores for college students (late adolescents/young
adults), which is the population of interest here, scores were slightly
higher for formal thinking than for relativistic thinking which were in
turn slightly higher than for dialectical thinking. However, when making
group comparisons, they combined the relativistic and dialectical scores
into a single measure of postformal thinking. In two other studies with
a similar age group, scores on the SPBI for relativistic thinking and
for dialectical thinking (which together constitute postformal thinking)
were higher than for formal thinking, but did not differ from each other
(Kahlbaugh & Kramer, 1995; Kramer et al., 1992). This pattern would
provide stronger evidence for combining the relativistic and dialectical
scores into a single measure. Consequently, in the present study, it was
decided to perform all analyses with formal and postformal scores from
Eighty seven undergraduates took part in this study. Unfortunately,
gender and age were not recorded. However, from casual observation, the
vast majority were between 18 and 23 old, the age range of most
university students. Participants were either native Anglophones, or
functionally bilingual Francophones. The latter were studying in the
English language, which should have permitted them to comprehend the
subtlety implied by metaphorical and ironic statements. The volunteers
were treated in accordance with the "Ethical Principles of
Psychologists and Code of Conduct" (American Psychological
Metaphor and Irony Test (MIT): Metaphor and Irony Identification
(MIT-I) and Subjective Appreciation (MIT-SA). Metaphor and irony
comprehension have been assessed by interviews in which a scenario with
metaphorical and ironic statements was read to participants (e.g.,
Happe, 1993; Mo, Su, Chan, & Liu, 2008). After each statement, the
participant was asked to explain what the underlying message was. Points
were awarded to correct answers.
For the present study, a written scenario based on Happe's
(1993) procedure was created (see Appendix). It included 6 instances of
metaphor and 6 instances of irony (3 situational and 3 verbal). On a
separate page, definitions for metaphor ("an implied comparison
between two unlike objects or things where one object is stated to be
the other object"), verbal irony ("when a person expresses the
opposite of what he or she intends"), and situational irony
("when actual events, or results, are contrary to the desired or
intended results"). Participants were instructed to mark metaphors
with a green marker and irony with a yellow marker, and to briefly
explain in a sentence or two the reason why each instance should be
considered metaphor or irony. A point was attributed for each correctly
highlighted instance, and a second point for an accurate explanation,
giving a maximum of 24 points for the MIT-I score. Four questions
assessing subjective appreciation of the text were also asked. On an
8-point scale (1='very little', 8='very much'),
participants were instructed to rate the 'humor,' the
'profoundness,' their 'interest' and their general
'liking' of the text, giving a maximum score of 32 and a
minimum of 4 for the MIT-SA score.
(DTT Divergent Thinking Test). The DTT (Guilford, 1967; see also
Furnham and Bachtiar, 2008) was used to assess creative performance. For
each of three objects (brick, towel and pen), participants were given 2
minutes to write down as many functions as they could think of for the
object. The total number of uses for all three objects yielded the
Social Paradigm Belief Inventory (SPBI). The SPBI (Kramer et al.,
1992) consists of 27 items covering everyday reasoning about behaviour
in society, personal relationships and personality development, and
problem solving (societal, interpersonal and intrapersonal domains).
Each item consists of three statements corresponding to formal thinking,
relativistic thinking and dialectical thinking. Respondents choose the
alternative which best represents their view of the topic, giving a
maximum score of 27 for each kind of thinking. Scores are ipsative,
because a high score on one kind of thinking necessarily means a lower
score on the others. For example, question 8 reads as follows: (a) In a
war, both sides have valid points of view. This is because each side
sees different aspects of the problem and thus reaches different
conclusions; (b) In a war, there is usually a right side and a wrong
side. This is because if both sides disagree, logically they
couldn't both be right; (c) In a war, both sides contribute to the
problem. This is because they belong to the same world and are part of
the problems that exist in that world. In this example, the formal
statement was 'b', the relativistic 'a', and the
Kramer et al. report split-half reliability coefficients of .60,
.83 and .84, for the absolute, relativistic and dialectical scales
respectively. These are generally close to the acceptable level of .70
for research purposes (Gregory, 2007). The test-retest reliability
coefficient correlation (over a two week interval) was .82, .83 and .78
for the absolute, relativistic and dialectical scales respectively,
which correspond to the low end of acceptability (.80) for these
reliability coefficients (Gregory, 2007).
To obtain evidence of validity, separate interviews assessed the
participants on their style of thinking, based on criteria developed by
Kramer and Woodruff (1986) in previous research on adult development.
Kramer et al. (1992) found that the correlation of scores obtained in
the interview with the scores from the SPBI was .42, which is acceptable
as a measure of convergent validity. Other measures of convergent
validity were significant and as predicted. Discriminant validity was
indicated by nonsignificant correlations between the SPBI and the WAIS
Vocabulary Test and between the SPBI and the Crowne and Marlowe scale of
Mood assessment. Mood was assessed using an informal test developed
by Boire (2009). Using an 8-point scale, participants rated the degree
to which they currently felt 9 emotions (happiness, depression,
frustration, satisfaction, sadness, anger, irritation, joy, melancholy).
Positive mood change (PMC) was defined as a difference in the direction
of a positive change in mood (e.g., more happiness, less anger, more
joy, less melancholy). Boire (2009) demonstrated that the scale detected
theoretically-expected mood changes induced by different kinds of music,
providing some evidence of scale validity.
Testing was conducted individually or in small groups. The three
main tasks (MIT, SPBI, DTT) were administered to participants in
counterbalanced order, taking about 40 minutes. For the MIT,
participants completed the initial mood questionnaire, read the metaphor
and irony scenario, and then completed the mood questionnaire a second
time. Immediately afterwards, they answered the four subjective
appreciation questions. Finally, given the definitions of metaphor and
irony, they attempted to identify all instances within the scenario,
and, on a separate page, to explain for each highlighted instance why it
constituted either metaphor or irony.
The SPBI yields three scores (formal, relativistic and dialectic),
but the latter two represent different facets of postformal thinking. As
noted in the introduction, they were not differentiated here because,
for the present age group of students, they were combined (Wu &
Chiou, 2008) and also because, in two studies, scores for relativistic
thinking and dialectical thinking were higher than for formal thinking,
but did not differ from each other (Kahlbaugh & Kramer, 1995; Kramer
et al., 1992). Confirming this pattern, the same result was obtained
here. A one-way ANOVA on the three scores was significant, F(2, 172) =
112.61, p < .001, and post hoc Tukey tests showed that scores for
relativistic thinking (M = 10.84, SD = 3.22) and dialectical thinking (M
= 12.02, SD = 3.32) did not differ from each other but were higher than
the scores for formal thinking (M = 4.08, SD = 2.65). This pattern of
results provides good empirical justification for combining the
relativistic and dialectical scores into a single measure of postformal
Following previous practices (Wu & Chiou, 2008; Yan, Wang &
Chiou, 2010), results were analyzed in two ways: with correlations and
with group comparisons. First, creativity, formal and postformal scores
were correlated with the scores for identification of metaphor and
irony, subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony, and positive mood
change. Second, each participant was classified as a formal thinker or
as a postformal thinker after which the two groups were compared on
their scores for creativity, identification of metaphor and irony,
subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony, and mood change. Alpha
was set at .05 and all tests were two-tailed.
Following Kramer et al.'s (1992) procedure (see also Wu &
Chiou, 2008 and Yan, Wang & Chiou, 2010), each participant's
raw score on formal thinking was converted into a z-score (by comparing
their score to the mean raw score for all participants), and the sum of
each participant's relativistic and dialectical raw scores were
converted into a z-score. These two z-scores were used to calculate
correlations involving formal and postformal thinking respectively. For
the purpose of comparing formal and postformal thinkers, each
participant was then classified as either a formal thinker (n = 35) or a
postformal thinker (n = 52) according to the higher of the two z-scores.
The MIT-I score was missing from one person in each group, so that
sample sizes were slightly reduced for analyses involving this variable.
Correlational Analyses for Predicted Relationships
First, creativity was positively correlated with metaphor and irony
identification (MIT-I), r(df = 81) = .337, p = .002 , but was not
significantly correlated with subjective appreciation (MIT-SA), r(83) =
.052, p = .638, or positive emotion change (PEC), r(83) = .211, p =
Second, creativity was negatively correlated with formal thinking,
r(83) = -.294, p = .006, and positively correlated with postformal
thinking, r(83) = .312. p = .004.
Third, and most importantly for the main hypothesis of the present
study, formal thinking was negatively correlated with MIT-I, r (83) =
.304, p = .005, and with MIT-SA, r(85) = -.236, p = .028, but was not
significantly correlated with PEC, r(85) = -.131, p = .228. In contrast,
postformal thinking was positively correlated with MIT-I, r(83) = . 324,
p = .002, and with MIT-SA, r(85) = .262, p = .014, but was also not
significantly correlated with PEC, r(85) = .131, p = .228.
Because creativity was significantly correlated with both MIT-I and
both formal and postformal thinking, partial correlations between formal
thinking and MIT-I and postformal thinking and MIT-I were calculated
with creativity controlled. Both correlations remained significant:
r(80) = -.226, p = .042 (formal thinking), and r(80) = .243, p = .02
(postformal thinking), respectively.
Finally, because formal and postformal thinking were highly
negatively correlated, r(85) = -.990, p < .001, the relationships
between the two kinds of thinking and the three measures for metaphor
and irony, with creativity taken into account, were examined with
stepwise multiple regression. For metaphor and irony identification, the
first model included creativity as a significant predictor, [R.sup.2] =
.114, F(1, 81) = 10.38, p = .002. The second model, in which [R.sup.2] =
.166, F(2, 82) = 7.96, p = .001, also included creativity but added
postformal thinking as a significant predictor, with F(1, 80) = 5.03, p
= .028 for the change in [R.sup.2]. For subjective appreciation, only
one model was significant, [R.sup.2] = .072, F(1, 85) = 6.43, p = .013.
Here, postformal thinking was a significant predictor. For mood change,
none of the variables predicted significantly.
Comparing Formal and Postformal Thinkers
Before comparing scores for formal and postformal thinkers on
creativity, metaphor and irony identification (MIT-I), metaphor and
irony subjective appreciation (MIT-SA), and positive mood change (PEC),
the relationships among these four variables were examined.
Three correlations were significant. As already observed,
creativity was correlated with MIT-I, r(81) = .337, p = .002. In
addition, MIT-I was correlated with PEC, r(83) = .224, p = .039, and
MIT-SA was correlated with PMC, r(85) = .337, p = .001. However, the
correlation between MIT-I and MIT-SA was not significant, r(83) = -.027,
p = .808.
Because it was expected that the difference between formal and
postformal thinkers would show the same directional effect for all four
dependent variables and because some of these variables were
significantly related, they were examined together in a one-way MANOVA
with type of thinker as the independent (subject) variable. The overall
multivariate effect was significant, F(4, 78) = 2.87, p = .028
(Pillai's trace). Table 1 shows that postformal thinkers scored
absolutely higher than formal thinkers on all four dependent variables,
with standardized effect sizes ranging from 0.19 to 0.55. However,
individual comparisons indicated that there were only two significant
effects: for creativity, F(1, 83) = 6.48, p = .013, standardized effect
size (Cohen's d) = 0.55, and for MIT-SA, F(1, 83) = 4.44, p = .038
, d = 0.47. As noted above, postformal thinkers scored higher than
formal thinkers on creativity and on subjective appreciation of metaphor
Although these comparisons provide information about which of the
four dependent variables contribute to the overall multivariate effect,
they do not show which variables have independent effects. To find out,
the stepdown procedure has been recommended (Tabachnick & Fidell,
2001). Here, the variables are examined in order of logical importance,
and analyses of covariance are conducted with the more important
variable entered as covariates (if they are significantly correlated).
In addition, Type I error is controlled with the Bonferroni correction
In the present case, it was reasoned that creativity had priority
because differences between formal and postformal thinkers had already
been demonstrated (Wu & Chiou, W.-B., 2008; Yang, Wan, & Chiou,
W-B., 2010). The next most important variable was metaphor and irony
identification because subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony and
mood change due to metaphor and irony would logically depend on it. In
addition, alpha was set at .013.
Following this procedure, postformal thinkers scored higher than
formal thinkers on creativity (see above, p = .013). However, none of
the other effects were significant: for MIT-I (with creativity as a
covariate), F(1, 80) = 0.50, p = .481 > .013, for MIT-SA, with no
covariates, p = .038 > .013 from above, and for PEC, with IMA-I and
IMA-SA as covariates, F(1, 82) = 0.039, p = .844 > .013.
It has been proposed that Piaget's theory of cognitive
development should be extended beyond the stage of formal operations to
include the concept of postformal thinking. Although various theoretical
accounts have been offered and tests have been constructed to measure
postformal thinking, the concept has been criticized, particularly
because of insufficient research evidence (Kallio & Liitos, 2009;
Marchand, 2001). The major purpose of the present study was to provide
an empirical evaluation of Kramer's theory of postformal reasoning
by replicating and extending previous work in which postformal thinking
was related to creativity (Wu & Chiou, 2008; Yang, Wan & Chiou,
2010). It was expected that creativity would be positively predicted by
postformal thinking but negatively predicted by formal thinking. The
novel idea in the present research was to relate postformal thinking to
the ability to identify and appreciate metaphor and irony and perhaps
also to the resulting emotional change. We also hoped to demonstrate the
link between creativity and metaphor and irony identification that was
reported by Glicksohn et al. (2009). Positive results would support the
idea that the linguistic devices of metaphor and irony share common
elements with creativity and postformal reasoning.
First, from the correlation and regression analyses, there was a
significant positive relationship between creativity and the ability to
identify metaphor and irony. This replicates the results of Glicksohn et
al. (2009) with a similar test of creativity that involved generating
uses for objects, but with a different test of metaphoric thinking (the
SBIT here and the BSET by Glicksohn et al.). This supports the analysis
in which both creativity and the use of metaphor and irony require
cognitive flexibility and imagination (Glicksohn et al., 2009). Notably,
this relationship did not extend to the subjective appreciation of
metaphor and irony or to emotional change. For emotional change,
although scores were positively correlated with scores for the
identification and subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony, they
were not correlated with creativity scores. In retrospect, this may not
be surprising because the two subjective experiences were closely tied
to the text containing metaphor and irony and were therefore probably
specific to that text.
Second, the previous relationships between types of thinking and
creativity (Wu & Chiou, 2008;Yang, Wan & Chiou, 2010) were
successfully replicated. Creativity scores were positively correlated
with postformal thinking scores and negatively with formal thinking
scores, and people classified as postformal thinkers scored higher on
creativity than people classified as formal thinkers. It appears that
being more of a formal thinker, where closed, correct solutions to
problems are preferred and contradictions are seen as undesirable,
inhibits the open-mindedness that is necessary to generate novel
responses. On the other hand, being more of a postformal thinker, where
ambiguity and contradiction are tolerated, encourages the generation of
Third, and turning to the major goal of the present study, some
predictions were supported and some were not. In the correlational
analysis, where the full range of scores on the variables was taken into
account, the ability to identify metaphor and irony was positively
related to postformal thinking and negatively related to formal
thinking. Similarly, the subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony
was also positively related to postformal thinking and negatively
related to formal thinking. Both of these sets of results support the
hypotheses linking postformal thinking to the identification and
appreciation of metaphor and irony. On the other hand, neither
postformal nor formal thinking were significantly related to positive
mood change. The interpretation of these correlations was sharpened by
the stepdown regression analysis which showed that postformal thinking
was added to creativity as an independent predictor of the
identification of metaphor and irony and that postformal thinking but
not creativity predicted the subjective appreciation of metaphor and
irony. This indicates that a higher level of postformal reasoning
permits the full impact of metaphor and irony to be experienced.
When people were classified as formal or postformal thinkers, there
were more people in the second group, which is the same pattern found by
Wu and Chiou (2008) in participants from the same population
(undergraduates). In addition, there was a general multivariate effect
in which postformal thinkers scored higher over all variables
(creativity, identification and subjective appreciation of metaphor and
irony and positive change in mood). The mean differences on each
variable were all in the same direction, indicating that each of them
contributed to the overall effect. This result is broadly consistent
with the correlational analysis and supports the general hypothesis that
postformal thinking would be related to objective and subjective indices
of metaphor and irony.
However, univariate analyses showed that this effect was only
significant for creativity (as noted above) and for the subjective
appreciation of metaphor and irony. Taking a more conservative approach
where the goal is to identify completely independent effects, none of
the metaphor and irony differences between formal and informal thinkers
were significant. Here, there was a methodological difference between
the correlational and categorical variable analyses, which perhaps
deserves further investigation in its own right. For example, a person
was classified as a formal thinker or a postformal thinker on the basis
of the higher of the two z-scores. Although this includes all
participants in the data analysis, it meant that, in some cases, these
scores were fairly similar, which weakens the separation of the groups
into two clearly distinct categories. The absence of a difference in the
ability to identify metaphor and irony between formal and postformal
thinkers may also represent another challenge to the notion that
postformal thinking is a clear stage of cognitive development in which
people have or have not attained it (cf. Marchand, 2001).
One anomaly in the present correlational results was that although
both formal and postformal thinking were related as expected to the
ability to identify metaphor and irony and to the subjective
appreciation of it, the correlation between identification and
appreciation was not significant. This was surprising because it was
argued that subjective appreciation or metaphor and irony depended on
its being detected. From this, it was assumed that better detection
would have been associated with more appreciation.
On the other hand, as expected, positive mood change was related to
the ability to identify metaphor and irony and to the subjective
appreciation of it. This is consistent with the argument that the full
impact of metaphor and irony may involve emotional change. However, both
the correlational analysis and the categorical analyses with the post
hoc individual and stepdown comparisons showed that the relationship
between postformal thinking and positive mood change was not
significant. This weakens the argument that postformal thinking includes
emotional effects. At the same time, it should be noted that
Kramer's model of postformal thinking does not emphasize this
element, and it does not appear explicitly in her post formal thinking
scale (SPBI). Consequently, all of the present results for postformal
thinking, metaphor and irony identification and appreciation and mood
change can be accommodated by her model and perhaps serve to distinguish
it from other approaches that do include emotion in their accounts of
posformal thinking (see Kallio & Liitos, 2009; Kincheloe &
Steinberg, 1993). As noted above, the present results may not fully
support the idea of a fifth stage of cognitive development, but they are
consistent with the characteristics of postformal reasoning as outlined
by Kramer, most specificially because the SPBI was employed to measure
postformal thinking. One way of investigating further the various
conceptions of postformal thinking would be to replicate the present
study using Sinnott's Postformal Thought Scale instead of
Kramer's SPBI. From Sinnott's conception of postformal
thinking (e.g., Griffin et al., 2009), it would also be predicted that
scores on her scale should predict both the identification and
subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony. If the major effects
relating formal and postformal thinking to metaphor and irony
identification and appreciation were replicated, this would provide
evidence for Sinnott's conception of postformal reasoning. Notably,
however, the items on her scale (Cartwright et al., 2009) do not contain
any reference to emotion, which perhaps implies that the same zero-order
relationships with mood change might be obtained.
The present study had some strengths and weaknesses. In terms of
theory, the extension of postformal research from creativity to the
processing of metaphor and irony is novel. In terms of methodology, care
was taken to obtain the judgments of metaphor and irony at the end of
the experiment so that they would not contaminate the subjective
judgments of appreciation and the reports of mood. Creativity was
measured by the Divergent Thinking Test, which is a classic test devised
by Guilford (1967) and similar to a figural counterpart employed in the
previous studies of postformal thinking and creativity (Wu & Chiou,
2008;Yang, Wan & Chiou, 2010). However, it might be also be
interesting to measure creativity with the Torrance Test of Creative
Thinking (Torrance, 1972), which taps semantic or symbolic creativity
that might relate more closely to the identification of irony and
On the negative side, the lack of demographic information was an
oversight that prevented any consideration of gender or age differences.
However, most of the participants were probably in the typical age range
for university undergraduates, and the scores for relativistic thinking
and dialectical thinking were similar and greater than those for
absolute thinking. This was similar to the results obtained in two
previous studies (Kahlbaugh & Kramer, 1995; Kramer et al., 1992) and
justified the grouping of the first two groups as postformal thinkers.
Given claims that postformal thinking, particularly dialectical
thinking, develops most fully in (Chiou, 2008; Kahlbaugh & Kramer,
1995; Yang, Wan and Chiou, 2010), it might be interesting to repeat this
study with older people who were not students. In addition, although all
participants understood English, those of them for whom it was not their
mother tongue may have been at a disadvantage for identifying metaphor
and irony. In the future, it might be wise to screen for English
fluency. Finally, although the measure of mood had been used in a
previous study with promising results (Boire, 2009), it was not a
standardized instrument. Future research on emotional change and
postformal thought should rectify this, and perhaps also explore other
ways of classifying people to more clearly distinguish formal and
In summary, social relationships depend on communication, but for
the message to have maximum impact, it may have to be conveyed
indirectly. This can be accomplished using metaphor and irony. The major
result of the present study is that the ability to identify and
appreciate metaphor and irony is significantly related to postformal
thinking. This indicates that, to comprehend and experience the subtlety
and nuance implied by ambiguity and contradiction, a person requires
skills beyond standard logical reasoning. In addition, previous
demonstrations of relationships between postformal thinking and
creativity and between creativity and the ability to identify metaphor
and irony were confirmed. Perhaps schools can promote creative thinking
and the processing of nonliteral language by encouraging the development
of postformal reasoning.
Appendix (Irony and Metaphor Scenario)
Jonathan and Emily are lying on the ground, in a prairie, watching
the stars; this is their second date together...
Emily: "What brew are you stirring (Metaphor), Jo?"
Jonathan: "... Have you ever thought about how strange it is
that the one thing which we are most afraid of is the one thing which we
will all inevitably encounter ... (Irony)"
E: "And what might that be?"
J: "Death itself."
E: "Wow, I really thought we were beyond the 'small
talk' stage, but I guess we're going to have to go back to
boring old, shallow conversations ... (I)"
J: "No but seriously Em, aren't we all ostriches with our
heads in the sand (M)?"
E: "Well, I think you might have a point there Jo, if only
ostriches actually did put their heads in the sand ... (I)"
J: "Em, you're a royal class jester (M), you know
E: "It's funny you should say that, because I saw a
painting once, by Jan Matejko, portraying the most famous jester in
Polish history. He's sitting in a chair at a royal ball, in all his
joker attire, and he's the only one concerned with the news that
the Russians have just captured one of their important cities ...
J: "I see ... So beneath your fool's attire (M),
you're hiding deep concerns?" Jonathan and Emily laugh their
hearts out (M), until silence gradually settles in again.
E: "Seriously Jo, I think you're right--we are pretending
that it isn't there, the bearer of the dark scythe (M), waiting for
us all ... But that's precisely because we are terribly frightened
J: "But that's exactly my point, Em! Why be afraid, and
avoid the subject of something which is bound to happen?"
E: "... Maybe because watching the stars is just so much more
End of Dialogue
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Philippe S. Blouin and Stuart J. McKelvie
Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. Stuart McKelvie,
Psychology Department, Bishop's University, 2600 College St.,
Sherbrooke, Quebec J1M 1Z7, Canada. Stuart.firstname.lastname@example.org
TABLE 1 Comparison of Scores for Formal and Postformal Thinkers
n Mean SD Cohen's d
Formal 34 14.85 7.34 0.55
Postformal 51 18.45 5.28
Metaphor and Irony Test--Identification (MIT-I)
Formal 34 8.35 5.17 0.33
Postformal 51 10.04 4.93
Metaphor and Irony Test--Subjective Appreciation (MIT-SA)
Formal 35 15.03 5.78 0.47
Postformal 52 17.27 5.74
Positive Mood Change (PMC)
Formal 35 -1.00 5.10 0.19
Postformal 52 0.04 5.95