Metaphors we think with

The role of metaphor in reasoning.
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I was alerted in a recent Clean News  to an important paper by Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky of the Department of Psychology at Stanford University: Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. If you haven’t read it yet, I strongly recommend you to do so (see ow to below).

The first and last two pages are just gold dust. I’ll start by quoting Thibodeau and Boroditsky’s abstract in full and then give you my take on the significance of the research.

The way we talk about complex and abstract ideas is suffused with metaphor. In five experiments, we explore how these metaphors influence the way that we reason about complex issues and forage for further information about them. We find that even the subtlest instantiation of a metaphor (via a single word) can have a powerful influence over how people attempt to solve social problems like crime and how they gather information to make ‘‘well-informed’’ decisions.

Interestingly, we find that the influence of the metaphorical framing effect is covert: people do not recognize metaphors as influential in their decisions; instead they point to more ‘‘substantive’’ (often numerical) information as the motivation for their problem-solving decision. Metaphors in language appear to instantiate frame-consistent knowledge structures and invite structurally consistent inferences.

Far from being mere rhetorical flourishes, metaphors have profound influences on how we conceptualize and act with respect to important societal issues. We find that exposure to even a single metaphor can induce substantial differences in opinion about how to solve social problems: differences that are larger, for example, than pre-existing differences in opinion between Democrats and Republicans.

Thibodeau and Boroditsky researched how a report that used the metaphors of crime as a virus and crime as a beastinfluenced both the way the participants in the study reasoned and the decisions they took.  They found, in general (there are always exceptions):

Thibodeau and Boroditsky researched how a report that used the metaphors of crime as a virus and crime as a beastinfluenced both the way the participants in the study reasoned and the decisions they took.  They found, in general (there are always exceptions):

1. The two metaphors systematically influenced how people proposed solving the crime problem.

Once we ‘buy-in’ to a metaphor we are constrained to follow it’s logic. And we do not realise that our ‘choices’ are limited to what makes sense within that metaphorical frame.

2. Even a single metaphorical noun biased how people reasoned about crime.

This is why working cleanly is so important.

3. Using the words ‘beast’ and ‘virus’ before they read the crime report (not containing those words) did not yield differences in people’s crime-fighting suggestions.

This implies that the entailments of a metaphor are activated when the metaphor occurs in a relevant context. Metaphors in social chit-chat may have little influence, whereas they can take on massive significance in focused goal-orientated contexts like problem solving – and is there any context more relevant than when our personal development is the focus?

4. Participants sought out information that was likely to confirm the initial bias suggested by the metaphor. Thibodeau and Boroditsky suggest that “this may be a mechanism for metaphors to iteratively amass long-term effects on people’s reasoning.”

This is a very subtle form of ‘confirmation bias’. We may be aware that we ‘hold views’ but virtually no one is aware that they ‘hold metaphors’ – and that makes it a real challenge to counter their effects. We can have laws against race, gender and religious discrimination but we can’t enact laws against metaphorical narrow thinking. (I know, I know!) We can personally aim to mitigate the biases by using a range of metaphors to understand a situation — even when they feel wrong to us.

5. Metaphors presented at the beginning of the report had the effect of encouraging participants to fit the information that followed into the relational structure suggested by the metaphor, whereas the same metaphors presented at the end of the report had no such effect.

6. “When given the opportunity to identify the most influential aspect of the crime report, participants ignore the metaphor. Instead, they cite the crime statistics (which are the same in both conditions) as being influential in their reasoning.”

In other words, we make up plausible explanations for our decisions that may have little to do with what influenced us. See Penny Tompkins and my articles Becausation and Self-Nudging (soon to be published).

Thibodeau and Boroditsky point out that metaphors have real-world effects. Since Ronald Reagan declared a war on drugs, the incarceration rate has more than quadrupled in the U.S.

The bad news/good news is the difference that resulted from being biased by either of the two metaphors for crime were “larger than pre-existing differences in opinion between Democrats and Republicans”. Given the apparent gulf between the views of self-identified Republicans and Democrats this finding is monumental – and it gives me hope that political differences are not necessarily deciding factors.

As a practitioner of a clean approach I am heartened to see solid research that confirms what we have discovered empirically from observing thousands of clients: metaphors matter.

While I think this research is some of the most important so far, it did have a weakness. I would have liked Thibodeau and Boroditsky to mention how metaphor influenced their research. I was struck by the framing of their experiments which investigated whether metaphors “coerce incoming information” or “activate a stored package of ideas”. Viewing how people “forage” for information in these two ways must surely have biased the researchers – and be an example of their findings.

And there are ‘deeper’ metaphors at work. The notion of that we “solve real-world problems” associated with complex social phenomena such as crime is a metaphor that is taken as a given. Even though, despite all the resources devoted to its eradication, no one has ever succeeded in ‘solving’ crime. Perhaps Gregory Bateson was on to something when he suggested we are barking up the wrong metaphor.

Article freely available at:

Thibodeau PH, Boroditsky L (2011) Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning, PlosOne 0016782.

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