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This blog brings together content that is noticeable, important or otherwise interesting from a human givens point of view.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

The power of metaphor From All In The Mind (BBC Radio 4, 5.07.11)

Lera Boroditsky talks to Claudia Hammond about the power of metaphor to change what we think.

Claudia Hammond (CH): In 1990 a schoolgirl was attacked in Buffalo, New York. Before the attacker was captured 15 months later, another 10 girls had been assaulted by the same man. And some scholars believe that these girls were not only the victims of crime but the way we use language to frame a problem – that the police saw their role as hunting the man down in secrecy, rather than taking steps to protect the community from him while he was still at large. Now new research from the University of Stanford has found that something as simple as describing crime as a ‘beast’ or as a ‘virus’ can change the way we think about crime and the solutions we suggest to tackle it. But if simple words can make such a difference, what implications does this have for the social policy decisions that affect us all? The author of the research is Assistant Professor of Psychology, Lera Boroditsky. In a minute we’ll hear more about her specific work on metaphor and crime. But before that I asked her how more broadly language can affect both what we think and what we know in everyday situations.

Lara Boroditsky (LB): Research from my lab and from many others has shown that language isn’t just a way of expressing your thoughts – it shapes the very thoughts you wish to express. In some cases, languages even give people skills or cognitive abilities that other people don’t have. One of my favourite examples comes from work on language and spatial abilities, navigational abilities. So there are folks around the world who, instead of using words like ‘left’ and ‘right’, use words like ‘north, east, south and west’. One consequence of speaking like this – always using ‘north, east, south and west’ – is you have to say things like “There’s an ant on your south west leg” or “Pass the cup to the north-north east a little bit”. In Kuuk Thaayorre [an Australian Aboriginal language], for instance, to say “Hello”, you say “Where are you going?” and the answer should be something like, “North-north east in the far distance. How about you?” As a consequence, folks who speak languages like this are incredibly good at staying oriented. And even a five-year-old can point correctly south east when asked, without hesitation. That’s something that most American college students or most American professors can’t do.

CH: And your recent work has been looking at metaphor and how people think about crime. Why did you pick crime?

LB: The answer is that I wanted to work on something that is a real-world problem. It started with the observation that political speeches are just suffused with metaphors, and sometimes with metaphors that really strongly reorganise one’s ideas.
CH: So in the lab you’ve been looking at the different ways crime might be described and compare what happens if you talk about it as a virus or as beast. What did you do there?

LB: In our studies we told people about an increasing crime situation in a fictional city and we gave them lots of statistics about crime. But half of the people were told that crime was a beast ravaging the city and the other half were told that crime was a virus ravaging the city. Both groups got the same factual information, but in each case they got this innocent little one-word metaphor: “It’s a virus” or “It’s a beast”. And what we predicted was that if people were thinking about crime as a virus, then their solutions to treating the crime problem would be similar to the way you would treat a virus: they might want to diagnose the problem, they might want to institute preventative measures – kind of inoculate the community, institute social reforms, maybe improve the educational system, things like that. Whereas if they thought that crime was a beast, they would try to treat it as if it were a real beast attack. So you would try to hunt it down, you would throw people in jail, you would enforce harsher sentences, things like this.

And this is exactly what we found. People who were told crime was a beast, given the ‘beast’ metaphor, were much more likely to come up with enforcement and punishment solutions to the problem. Whereas people who were given the ‘virus’ metaphor were much more likely to say “Let’s try to improve the economic situation in the community, let’s try to improve the educational situation” – kind of restore the health of the community so that the problem doesn’t continue.

CH: It seems extraordinary that even when you mention this word ‘beast’ or ‘virus’ just once, it had this big impact on what people gave as their solutions.

LB: What we found was is that people assimilate information into their metaphorical frames, so even if it is just one word, it’s a very powerful word that activates a whole knowledge network, a whole framework of thinking; and that all the further information people learn about the city, all the crime statistics, is kind of assimilated and shaped into the knowledge framework that’s activated by that word.

CH: And you found it only worked if the word was near the beginning, not at the end of the description they had about the crime problem. Were people aware that this was happening, that this was influencing them?  

LB: That was one of the most interesting parts of what we found. We asked people after they gave us their solution: “What influenced you in your solution, what made you give the answer that you gave?” And nearly no-one chose the metaphor as the thing that influenced them. People thought they were influenced by the statistics, by the objective facts, whereas they were giving very different solutions depending on the metaphor that they got. So the metaphor was invisible to them, they didn’t think it was important, and yet it had formed their whole impression of the situation.

CH: And this must have effects way beyond crime because metaphors are used so often. I mean you think about people talking about floods of migrants coming in, or influxes or invasions – all those sorts of words are going to bring up certain sorts of things for people, aren’t they?

LB: Absolutely. In fact it’s impossible to talk about anything that’s abstract or complex without using metaphor. Partially this is just because we have a very finite set of words in our language and we have an infinite set of things we want to talk about, so we constantly have to re-use words and expressions from old knowledge to talk about new stuff. So we’re inevitably using metaphor. But certainly, whenever we’re trying to conceptualise something complex and abstract, and any societal problem fits into this category, we’re using huge numbers of metaphors. And those metaphors really frame how we shape the issues and then how we try to solve them, how we act on them in the end.

CH: Lara Boroditsky from Stanford University

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