Let's say that we are comparing cities we have visited or would like to visit, and I mention one that I have not yet been to but you have. You say, "It's a massive, stinking cesspool filled with garbage and crawling with every form of filth imaginable."  Immediately my mind conjures an image of a filthy retention pond covered with scum, loaded with trash, and lousy with rats and roaches.

How close the metaphor you have chosen is to actually describing the city is debatable, but in the few minutes we are speaking this doesn't really matter. What matters is that you have provided the metaphorical rudiments for me to construct an image that is now schematically associated with the city in my mind.  One day I may visit that city and determine that your metaphor was inaccurate, or I may conclude that it was dead on right. Until then--or until I come across information that contradicts or verifies your description--the image will be there. And even after that, I'll find removing that image from my mind very difficult.

That is the power of metaphor -- a power so subtle we barely notice how much it impacts our thinking.  Researchers Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky from Stanford University demonstrated how influential metaphors can be through a series of five experiments designed to tease apart the "why" and "when" of a metaphor's power.  First, the researchers asked 482 students to read one of two reports about crime in the City of Addison. Later, they had to suggest solutions for the problem. In the first report, crime was described as a "wild beast preying on the city" and "lurking in neighborhoods".

After reading these words, 75% of the students put forward solutions that involved enforcement or punishment, such as building more jails or even calling in the military for help. Only 25% suggested social reforms such as fixing the economy, improving education or providing better health care. The second report was exactly the same, except it described crime as a "virus infecting the city" and "plaguing" communities. After reading this version, only 56% opted for great law enforcement, while 44% suggested social reforms.

Interestingly, very few of the participants realized how affected they were by the differing crime metaphors. When Thibodeau and Boroditsky asked the participants to identify which parts of the text had most influenced their decisions, the vast majority pointed to the crime statistics, not the language. Only 3%  identified the metaphors as culprits. The researchers confirmed their results with more experiments that used the same reports without the vivid words. Even though they described crime as a beast or virus only once, they found the same trend as before.

The researchers also discovered that the words themselves do not wield much influence without the right context. When Thibodeau and Boroditsky asked participants to come up with synonyms for either "beast" or "virus" before reading identical crime reports, they provided similar solutions for solving the city's problems. In other words, the metaphors only worked if they framed the story. If, however, they appeared at the end of the report, they didn't have any discernable effect. It seems that when it comes to the potency of metaphor, context is king.

This post is an excerpt from my upcoming book, What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite (Prometheus Books), scheduled for release in November 2011. 

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