While editors and journalists worry about whether a simple word choice could influence their readers, politicians take another tack. They use metaphors all the time, explicitly in order to persuade people to view things their way. Lera Boroditsky, a psychology professor at Stanford University, conducted an experiment to see just whether this kind of metaphorical framing really works.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: When journalists say explicitly that they try not to consider how a simple word choice might influence policy or people, politicians take the opposite tack. They want to choose the most influential word or words possible. Some of the most persuasive words are metaphors. Lera Boroditsky, a psychology professor at Stanford University, conducted an experiment to see just how effective metaphorical framing is.
LERA BORODITSKY: When politicians talk about problems in society, they use metaphors all the time. They're just profligate users of metaphors. And we thought, is that because these metaphors are good for persuasion, is it because they help people think about complex problems? What is the role that they're playing?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What you did is you took two groups of people and you offered each of them a problem to solve. You created the fictional town of Addison, which was experiencing a crime wave.
LERA BORODITSKY: Yes. We asked two groups of participants to help us solve the problem of crime rising in the city of Addison. One group we told that crime was a beast ravaging the city of Addison. We used a beast metaphor. For the other group, we said crime was a virus ravaging the city of Addison. We gave both groups all the same statistics, the rising crime rates, so they had all the same factual information about the city.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The only difference was the metaphor.
LERA BORODITSKY: The only difference was that one word. Is it a “beast” or is it a “virus?” We asked both groups what should be done in Addison to solve the crime problem? The group that got the beast metaphor was much more likely to seek solutions about enforcement and punishment, so they would say, bring in more police, build more jails. The folks that got the virus metaphor came up with quite a different set of solutions. They focused on social reform. So they would say things like, let's improve the education system or, let's have better after-school programs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How strong was this effect?
LERA BORODITSKY: Well, to find that out, we wanted to compare the size of the metaphor effect to the size of normal opinion differences in the population. So, for example, Republicans and Democrats differ on this issue. Democrats are more likely to think you should use social reform. Republicans are more likely to think that you should enforce and punish. And, in fact, we find that split between Republicans and Democrats in our data. But what we find is the metaphor was actually twice as strong as that opinion split between Republicans and Democrats. That suggests to us that the particular framing in which we're entertaining a problem really matters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you get the sense that your survey participants were at all conscious of the impact of the metaphor?
LERA BORODITSKY: We wondered that, so we asked all of our participants, can you tell us what influenced your decision? People selected the facts and the figures, the crime statistics, and they said that was the most influential. Well, of course, the crime statistics were the same for the two groups, so that couldn't have been the thing that made the difference. The only difference was that metaphor, and almost no one chose it as the important part of the passage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You even found that the metaphors changed the kind of information that people subsequently asked for.
LERA BORODITSKY: That’s right. And what we found was people foraged for information that was consistent with the metaphor. If they heard that crime was a beast ravaging the city of Addison, they would select information about jails or about police to learn about more and seek out more information about that. And we were interested in that because we thought that would be the kind of process that would help perpetuate the effect of the metaphor.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you look in the real world outside of the lab, there are certain metaphors, certain frames that just fail, right?
LERA BORODITSKY: Yeah, it’s definitely the case that not every attempt to frame something or reframe something works. And my favorite example of a failed attempt is when the U.S. Congress decided to rename French fries into Freedom fries [BROOKE LAUGHS] a few years ago. During World War I, for example, everything that had a German-sounding name got remade into Liberty something or other [BROOKE LAUGHS], so you would say Liberty cabbage instead of sauerkraut or Liberty sausage instead of liverwurst. But these days it’s Freedom fries and Freedom manicures and Freedom toast [BROOKE LAUGHS] and things like that. And -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And those don't work, do they?
LERA BORODITSKY: They don't work because they're based on a bad theory about how language and thought relate to one another. When you make that kind of substitution, when you say, you know what, we can just use the word “French” and the word “freedom” in the same contexts, any word that you can use in the same context that way is a synonym. And what you’re implying with that kind of substitution is that “French and “freedom” are synonyms.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Doh! That’s not what they mean.
LERA BORODITSKY: It’s exactly the opposite of what they're trying to accomplish, you know. So if you carry out the substitution you would have to say, you know, Freedom kissing and Freedom poodles.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] But also [BROOKE LAUGHS] what do you call France? Would it be the Land of Freedom? What do you call French? Is it the Language of Freedom? That’s clearly not what the substitution is meant to do. So I have my own silly proposal about what to do in situations like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm?
LERA BORODITSKY: If we want to really annoy the French, I say take all the things that the French don't like and call them French. [BROOKE LAUGHS] McDonald's would be the French café, and you could call Disneyland France [BROOKE LAUGHS]. Americans will be French people. That'll really get 'em.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Lera, thank you very much.
LERA BORODITSKY: Well, thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lera Boroditsky is an assistant professor of cognitive psychology at Stanford University.