In other words: Metaphors matter

STANFORD (US) — The public is more supportive of increased law enforcement if its intention is to tame a crime “beast” rather than cure a crime “virus.”

A new study, published in the journal PLoS One, finds public support can hinge on a single metaphor used to describe a serious problem like crime.

“Some estimates suggest that one out of every 25 words we encounter is a metaphor,” says Paul Thibodeau, doctoral candidate at Stanford University and the study’s lead author.

“But we didn’t know the extent to which these metaphors influence people.”

While the research, stemming from curiosity about how subtle cues and common figures of speech can frame approaches to difficult problems, focused specifically on attitudes about crime, the findings can be used to understand the implications of how a casual or calculated turn of phrase can influence debates and change minds.

“We can’t talk about any complex situation—like crime—without using metaphors,” says Lera Boroditsky, assistant professor of psychology.

“Metaphors aren’t just used for flowery speech. They shape the conversation for things we’re trying to explain and figure out. And they have consequences for determining what we decide is the right approach to solving problems.”

In five experiments, test subjects were asked to read short paragraphs about rising crime rates in the fictional city of Addison and answer questions about the city. The researchers gauged how people answered these questions in light of how crime was described—as a beast or a virus.

Test subjects’ proposed solutions differed depending on the metaphor they were exposed to.

In one study, 71 percent of the participants called for more enforcement when they read: “Crime is a beast ravaging the city of Addison.” That number dropped to 54 percent among participants who read an alternative framing: “Crime is a virus ravaging the city of Addison.”

Along with the metaphors, the crime reports also included alarming statistics. One mentioned that there were about 10,000 more crimes reported in 2007 than 2004, and the number of murders had gone from 330 to more than 500 in that period.

When the 485 participants in that study were asked to highlight what they thought was the most influential part of the report, only 15 identified the metaphor, while almost everyone else said it was the statistics that swayed their decisions on how to curb crime.

“People like to think they’re objective and making decisions based on numbers,” Boroditsky says. “They want to believe they’re logical. But they’re really being swayed by metaphors.”

To get a sense of how much the metaphor really mattered, Thibodeau and Boroditsky also examined what role political persuasions play in people’s approach to reducing crime.

They suspected that Republicans would be more inclined to catch and incarcerate criminals than Democrats, who would prefer enacting social reforms. They found Republican participants were about 10 percent more likely to suggest an enforcement-based solution.

But the difference was substantially less than the difference triggered by the metaphor. Participants who read that crime was a beast were about 20 percent more likely to suggest an enforcement-based solution than participants who read that crime was a virus, regardless of their political persuasion.

“That shows that you don’t have to have immediate political polarization on every issue,” Boroditsky says.

“You can figure out how to communicate your message and find the right set of analogies and metaphors that will lead people to the same conclusion.”

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