How can metaphors dramatically change your life?

Stanford reviews a study showing how a simple change in wording can dramatically affect how we respond to the same information:

Psychology Assistant Professor Lera Boroditsky and doctoral candidate Paul Thibodeau have shown that people will likely support an increase in police forces and jailing of offenders if crime is described as a “beast” preying on a community. But if people are told crime is a “virus” infecting a city, they are more inclined to treat the problem with social reform.


In five experiments, test subjects were asked to read short paragraphs about rising crime rates in the fictional city of Addison and answer questions about the city. The researchers gauged how people answered these questions in light of how crime was described – as a beast or a virus.

They found the test subjects’ proposed solutions differed a great deal depending on the metaphor they were exposed to.


“People like to think they’re objective and making decisions based on numbers,” Boroditsky said. “They want to believe they’re logical. But they’re really being swayed by metaphors.”

Columbia University covers a study that shows a similar problem with the effects of metaphors on Wall Street. Metaphors imply a motive behind the random movements of the market and this leads our brains to unconsciously perceive an intention and trend where there is none:

While these financial pundits may merely be trying to spice up their reports, the researchers found conclusive evidence that agent metaphors are more likely after days when the market has trended up rather than down. In addition, they found that exposure to agent-metaphor descriptions of trends leads investors to expect trend continuance rather than correction on the following day.

The danger in this situation, says Morris, is that the stock market does not actually follow any particular patterns. “But saying ‘The market moved randomly today’ isn’t much of a news story,” he notes. “The job of a commentator is to provide the story behind the numbers. A story requires events, characters and motives, and hence the metaphorical description.” What the commentators don’t realize, he says, is that the metaphors they draw upon for up days and down days follow a pattern, and that pattern perpetuates a bias of investors to believe that uptrends offer meaningful signals about the future but that downtrends do not.

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