Metaphor is recurrent in human language. We use them to decorate our poetry (“My love is like a red, red rose…”) and for emphasis (“That stock is a gold mine…”). We use metaphors to reduce complex and abstract ideas into comparable terms (“The mind is computer…”). We also use them without thinking much at all. A 1989 study of television dialogue found characters employing one unique metaphor for every 25 words.
How should we deal with a rising crime rate in a large city? As it turns out, depending on the metaphors employed to describe the issue, drastically different approaches will be suggested. Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University noticed our dialogue on crime is rife with metaphor. From their recent paper Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning:
Public discourse about crime is saturated with metaphor. Increases in the prevalence of crime are described as crime waves, surges or sprees. A spreading crime problem is a crime epidemic, plaguing a city or infecting a community. Crimes themselves are attacks in which criminals prey on unsuspecting victims. And criminal investigations are hunts where criminals are tracked and caught. Such metaphorical language pervades not only discourse about crime, but nearly all talk about the abstract and complex. Are such metaphors just fancy ways of talking, or do they have real consequences for how people reason about complex social problems like crime?
Thibodeau and Boroditsky crafted a clever experiment in which they presented two groups with a statement about rising crime in a fictional city and asked to provide suggestions on how to fix the crime issue. Providing detailed statistics on crime incidences and the rate at which the crime had been growing year over year, the statements were identical except for the first sentence in the passage. This sentence described the problem of crime in Addison with a metaphor, either referring to the crime as a beast or a virus (“Crime is a beast/virus ravaging the city of Addison.”)
Depending on how crime was presented metaphorically, respondents gravitated to certain types of responses. The virus metaphor resulted in suggestions very similar to how we would deal with a real disease epidemic. Group members wanted to investigate the root causes of the crime and “treat” it with social reforms that would help inoculate the community (such as improving education and eradicating poverty). When crime was a beast, participants wanted to hunt down and catch the criminals and put them in jail, and went on to propose harsher enforcement laws.
Marketers use metaphors to access latent consumer emotions and attitudes, such as in the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET). In the ZMET study, researchers ask consumers to use pictures to describe their feelings about a situation. These images are supposed to provide access to the non-verbal unconscious mind and provide researchers with a view into the fundamental structures that guide consumer thought.
Thibodeau PH, Boroditsky L (2011) Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. PLoS ONE 6(2): e16782. doi:10.1371/journal.
Image by Erin Schell