Dr. Grossi's Blog

Metaphoric Slight of Hand

Dr. Philip Grossi
Saturday, 12 March 2011

I remember studying figures of speech in high school English classes.  One of the central figures from which other descended was the metaphor in which one item is spoken of in terms of another item which it only resembles without using of like or as.  We read Hopkins "Not, I'll not carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee..." and Rossetti "A Sonnet is a moment's monument."  When I was a first year resident at UCSF, I spent some time working with Harry Wilmer, M.D., who videotaped patients interacting with me or other residents and which we subsequently watched and analyzed. He felt that the heart of unconscious communication was the metaphor and without understanding that one could not understand the patient in depth.  I recall one instance in which a young man entered the clinic for the first time and talked using metaphors surrounding math, probabilities, gamblers, risk, games of chance. etc.  After I called his attention to those, he revealed that his gambler father had killed himself six weeks earlier.  This opened up his entire treatment.

illustration to metaphoric slight of hand blogNow comes Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky from the Department of Psychology just up the road at Stanford reporting on five experiments demonstrating the importance of metaphor in reasoning. These researchers decided to focus of a complex, common, and very important societal issue.  They picked the issue of crime and investigated it via five experiments demonstrating how we think of crime and reason about crime and whether metaphor influences those decisions.  The press is filled with metaphor about crime such as crime sprees or waves or crime as an epidemic or plague.  Criminals attack people and prey on the infirm. The police hunt criminals who are tracked.

The authors' intent was to determine whether metaphor would influence how individuals think about crime and to elucidate the mechanisms through which metaphors shape our views and understanding. Metaphors should elicit conceptual analogies.  Different metaphors should elicit different analogic inferences. These differences should in turn lead to different proposed solutions to the crime problem.  To test these hypotheses, the authors decided to focus on two contrasting metaphors for crime.  The first was crime as a virus and the second was crime as a beast.  One would predict that those who thought of crime as a virus would propose remedies akin to those proposed for an viral epidemic.  On the other hand, those who view crime as a problem of a beast would propose a remedy akin to those from fighting off a wild animal.

In experiment one, the participants were given a description of a fictitious town of Addison where crime was framed as a virus or as a beast.  In framing the issue as a virus, participants proposed finding the causes and increasing social welfare, improving education, eradicating poverty etc. When crime was framed as a beast, the participants advised catching and jailing and increasing enforcement.  Experiment two was identical but there was only reference to virus and beast whereas in one there were supporting relational words (lurking, preying).  In experiment three, the words virus and beast were taken out of the description entirely and participants were asked a lexical association to the words virus and beast before reading the passage about Addison.  In the fourth experiment, the researchers presented crime with the virus and beast metaphor and asked the participants to gather further information about the issue.  Interestingly, they sought out information that was consistent with the metaphorical frame.  The participants sought out information to support their initial bias.  In experiment five, the researchers explored the issue of the time-course of construal of this complex social issue.  So, one possibility is that metaphors presented early create a knowledge structure that organizes subsequent knowledge inflows and instantiates ambiguous information consistent with the metaphor.  The authors refer to this as an active coercing of information and would be most powerful if the metaphor came early as it did in experiments two and four. The alternative explanation would be that metaphors activated packets of ideas.  In that case, they would be most effective if presented late as in experiment five where the metaphoric frame was presented in the last sentence. This last had no influence on participants crime information foraging. 

illustration to metaphoric slight of hand blog

Finally, the authors call attention to the finding that the powerful effects of metaphor are covert.  When the participants were given the opportunity to highlight the most influential aspect of the crime report they had read, they all ignored the metaphor and instead cited the statistics in the description of Addison.  This suggests that unbeknownst to us metaphors exert powerful effects on our view, thinking, and information foraging about social issues and further that we preferentially focus on numbers and statistics.