Stirring rhetoric is a celebrated aspect of art, and a controversial part of politics. But one study indicates that it could be something more. Metaphors might be able to affect the way our brains perceive the world, and the power of a good metaphor may actually have a scientific basis.
Every election season people ascend a podium and explain how the nation is doing, and what the nation should be. Often they do this through the use of metaphor, laying out an allegorical vision of different outcomes. The right metaphor can become shorthand for the speech itself. We refer in conversation to Martin Luther King's "I've Been to the Mountaintop," speech and, in a markedly different way, Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood," speech. The metaphors vary in eloquence, and they vary in appeal, but do they actually make a difference? One study indicates that they do.
The Study of Metaphor
In 2011, a study called "Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning," made the case that a metaphor embedded in a text can shape how people think about a issue, and how they respond to it. The study required people to read an article about the problem of crime in cities, and asked them to make recommendations for how to deal with it. Participants got one of two different versions of the article. One version used the metaphor of crime being a virus, while the other referred to crime as a beast. People who read the article which referred to crime as an illness were likely to recommend responding to crime by information gathering and social reform along the lines of inoculation. Those who read the article that framed crime as a beast were more likely to recommend harsher penalties and long prison terms.
The metaphor doesn't need to be explicitly stated to work. A variation of the experiment, which did not make the metaphor explicit, instead contained heavy implication. When people read about crime "lurking" in cities and "preying" on their inhabitants, they wanted the criminals caught and imprisoned. When they read about crime "infecting" cities, they wanted to stop the spread of the disease.
A final variation of the experiment showed that the metaphor does need to be present in the text. The article was carefully re-written with words that could apply to beasts or to viruses. Before reading the article, people were asked to write out synonyms, either for the word "beast" or the word "virus." Participants still had the words on their mind as they considered crime, but the metaphor wasn't part of the test. When people filled out the survey on how to deal with crime, the association between beast and punishment, and virus and inoculation, dissolved.
The Meaning of Metaphor
This study indicates that there's more to metaphor than we might think. It's not just a way to pretty up a speech, it's a way that we live our lives. This makes sense when you realize how many scientific models are metaphors. Light isn't like a wave of water, but there are plenty of situations in which it's both simpler and more useful to treat it like it is. Then, of course, there's the old physics joke about how to deal with the movements of a cow - "Assume the cow is a sphere." We approach the world through metaphor, using the response we'd make to one situation to guide us through a different situation.
That guidance can make all the difference. As we've seen with actual diseases, how the people at risk imagine them will influence how they protect themselves. Consider the difference in preventative steps that people take if they think a disease is passed through the bloodstream, or if it's passed through the smell of the secretions of the sick person, or if it results strictly from an imbalance of personal fluids. Consider the different medical care that develops. Inducing a person to vomit might help in one situation, but will do more harm than good if the physician thinks that the patient has been cured by getting their humors properly balanced rather than limiting the patient's exposure to an outside agent. Metaphors give us guidelines along which to organize a response. They do so in science, and it appears they do so in rhetoric as well. So be careful with the rhetorical flourishes.