Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

What’s a metaphor for?

April 4th, 2011

Dipping into an ocean of knowledge. A light in the darkness. Hitting your head against a wall. A window on the world.

The road less traveledWe use metaphors so often that many of them become clichés, but we don’t often recognize how they affect the way we think. I tend to think of them as shorthand poetry, but they have a lot more influence than that.

I’ve written about how holding a heavy clipboard makes us perceive issues as more serious (“weightier”), while holding a hot cup of coffee leads us to judge people as more friendly (“warmer”). Metaphors are entwined with our perceptions of abstract concepts, and it’s been argued that we can’t actually think abstractly without them.

What this means, of course, is that we can use metaphors to influence how issues, problems and solutions are perceived. In fact, Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky recently showed that switching metaphors by changing a single word altered how people responded to, thought about and solved real-world problems.

Thibodeau and Boroditsky showed their study participants a paragraph of information about the fictional American city of Addison. It stated that crime rates in Addison had dramatically increased over the previous five years, causing worry that even more serious problems would develop. All the participants saw an identical paragraph except that half the paragraphs began with the line, “Crime is a beast ravaging the city of Addison,” while the other half began with, “Crime is a virus ravaging the city of Addison.”

After reading the paragraph, participants were asked several questions, including how they would recommend solving Addison’s crime problem. The researchers then categorized the suggested solutions as oriented toward either enforcement (applying law enforcement methods or altering the criminal justice system) or reform (investigating underlying causes or suggesting social reforms).

Only a single word differed in the paragraph the study participants saw, but their responses noticeably diverged: significantly more participants in the “beast” group suggested enforcement-type solutions than did participants in the “virus” group. When asked what influenced their reasoning, only 7% identified the metaphor.

Other studies have shown that choice of metaphor influences our self-concept and how we think about time and that unappealing metaphors (such as sports analogies for those who dislike sports) can make a message less appealing to its audience.

Drawing the LineThere are dozens of ways to apply this. You will attract very different people to your debate club if you advertise “Come play with ideas and hone your skills” versus “Come challenge our top debaters to a war of words”. Spouses in a troubled marriage will take different approaches if they view marriage as a contract agreement or as joining a new team. Do we have to have a “war on climate change” and a “battle of the sexes”? Can we see our environmental issues as a challenge or competition, like reaching the moon in the late 1960s? Can the sexes cooperate, team up or rejoice in differences?

Personally, I think of social psychology findings as a collection of equipment that we can use to implement change – as you can see in the title of this blog. And metaphor choice is a large and multi-purpose tool. Let’s get out there and tune up the planet.

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