A gripping piece from Not Exactly Rocket Science describes how simply changing the metaphors used to describe crime can alter what we think is the best way of tackling it.
The article covers a new study on the power of metaphors and how they can influence our beliefs and understanding of what’s being discussed.
In a series of five experiments, Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky from Stanford University have shown how influential metaphors can be. They can change the way we try to solve big problems like crime. They can shift the sources that we turn to for information. They can polarise our opinions to a far greater extent than, say, our political leanings. And most of all, they do it under our noses. Writers know how powerful metaphors can be, but it seems that most of us fail to realise their influence in our everyday lives.
First, Thibodeau and Boroditsky asked 1,482 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 neighbourhoods”. After reading these words, 75% of the students put forward solutions that involved enforcement or punishment, such as calling in the National Guard or building more jails. 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” neighbourhoods. After reading this version, only 56% opted for more enforcement, while 44% suggested social reforms. The metaphors affected how the students saw the problem, and how they proposed to fix it.
The study is interesting because it touches on a central claim of the linguist George Lakoff who has argued that metaphors are central to how we reason and make sense of the world.
Lakoff’s arguments have had a massive influence in linguistics, where they have started more than one scientific skirmish, and were adopted by the US Democratic party in an attempt to reframe the debates over key issues.
Despite the fact that Lakoff was one of the pioneers of the idea that metaphor is central to reasoning, his political associations have made him somewhat unfashionable and it’s interesting that this new study makes only passing reference to his work.