Stirring rhetoric is a celebrated aspect of art, and a controversial part of politics. But one study indicates that it could be something more. Metaphors might be able to affect the way our brains perceive the world, and the power of a good metaphor may actually have a scientific basis.
Every election season people ascend a podium and explain how the nation is doing, and what the nation should be. Often they do this through the use of metaphor, laying out an allegorical vision of different outcomes. The right metaphor can become shorthand for the speech itself. We refer in conversation to Martin Luther King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” speech and, in a markedly different way, Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood,” speech. The metaphors vary in eloquence, and they vary in appeal, but do they actually make a difference? One study indicates that they do.
The Study of Metaphor
In 2011, a study called “Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning,” made the case that a metaphor embedded in a text can shape how people think about a issue, and how they respond to it. The study required people to read an article about the problem of crime in cities, and asked them to make recommendations for how to deal with it. Participants got one of two different versions of the article. One version used the metaphor of crime being a virus, while the other referred to crime as a beast. People who read the article which referred to crime as an illness were likely to recommend responding to crime by information gathering and social reform along the lines of inoculation. Those who read the article that framed crime as a beast were more likely to recommend harsher penalties and long prison terms.
The metaphor doesn’t need to be explicitly stated to work. A variation of the experiment, which did not make the metaphor explicit, instead contained heavy implication. When people read about crime “lurking” in cities and “preying” on their inhabitants, they wanted the criminals caught and imprisoned. When they read about crime “infecting” cities, they wanted to stop the spread of the disease.
A final variation of the experiment showed that the metaphor does need to be present in the text. The article was carefully re-written with words that could apply to beasts or to viruses. Before reading the article, people were asked to write out synonyms, either for the word “beast” or the word “virus.” Participants still had the words on their mind as they considered crime, but the metaphor wasn’t part of the test. When people filled out the survey on how to deal with crime, the association between beast and punishment, and virus and inoculation, dissolved.