Beware of Metaphors

by Vince

Metaphors and imagery can be great tools for communicating. They also can be abused by pundits and invective slingers. Here is a stunning story on this when related to crime. A study: “the researchers asked 482 students to read one of two reports about crime in the City of Addison. Later, they had to suggest solutions for the problem. In the first report, crime was described as a “wild beast preying on the city” and “lurking in neighborhoods”.

The outcomes?

After reading these words, 75% of the students put forward solutions that involved enforcement or punishment, such as building more jails or even calling in the military for help. Only 25% suggested social reforms such as fixing the economy, improving education or providing better health care. The second report was exactly the same, except it described crime as a “virus infecting the city” and “plaguing” communities. After reading this version, only 56% opted for great law enforcement, while 44% suggested social reforms.

However, they found that the harsh wording didn’t necessarily derive draconian ideas for solutions or thoughts:

The researchers also discovered that the words themselves do not wield much influence without the right context. When Thibodeau and Boroditsky asked participants to come up with synonyms for either “beast” or “virus”before reading identical crime reports, they provided similar solutions for solving the city’s problems. In other words, the metaphors only worked if they framed the story. If, however, they appeared at the end of the report, they didn’t have any discernable effect. It seems that when it comes to the potency of metaphor, context is king.

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