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It's True, You are Being Subconsciously Manipulated

Susan Etkind  Follow

Let’s say you’re the chief of police and your city is in the midst of a crime wave. You appeal to the city’s residents for help and separate them into two problem-solving groups. Each group gets the same facts and statistics. There’s just one critical difference. You tell one group that crime is a “beast ravaging the city.” For the other, you describe it as a “virus ravaging the city.”

Do you think the reference to “beast” versus “virus” would affect the thinking of the two groups as they hashed out the crime problem?  Probably not, right? The facts are the same. The only difference is the metaphor. Think again. This scenario was the subject of a study by a Stanford professor Lera Boroditsky. In an interview with NPR’s On the Media, Boroditsky explained what happened.

The group where crime was described as a “beast” focused overwhelmingly on law enforcement and punishment, calling for more cops and more jails.  But the “virus” group had a very different response, focusing on social reform, such as eradicating poverty and improving education.

Metaphors are one of the key ways we communicate. Politicians, journalists and PR people rely on metaphors to persuade people and evoke a visceral response.  We do it because it works. People are moved by metaphors.

What’s interesting is that we don’t even realize how our thoughts are being shaped. In the Stanford study, participants said they relied on the factual information they were given and the “beast” and “virus” metaphors didn’t affect their thinking.

In the research report, Boroditsky and her co-author wrote:  “. . . unbeknownst to us, metaphors powerfully shape how we reason about social issues . . . This is particularly true in discussions of social policy, where it often seems impossible to ‘literally’ discuss immigration, the economy or crime.”

Metaphor slammed into the public consciousness in a big way after the shooting that killed six people and seriously injured Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 13 others. A national debate exploded. Did the map posted by Sarah Palin, which put crosshairs on 20 Democrats targeted for defeat, including Giffords, play a role in the shooting? Had the violent political rhetoric of the past few years turned the debate from metaphor to murder? While it’s impossible to know what went on in alleged shooter Jared Loughner’s mind, one thing is clear: Metaphorical words and images are powerful.

“Metaphor is clearly not just an ornamental flourish, but a fundamental part of the language system,” Boroditsky wrote. The fact is that every one of us is subconsciously influenced, even manipulated, every day. The lesson is two-fold. For all of us, it behooves us to be alert to how our behavior and thoughts are shaped by influencers, from politicians to journalists. For those of us who rely on language to do our jobs, it underscores the need to get the messages and images right, and to “out-metaphor” the competition. CJP  

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