Metaphors Help Explain Tough Topics Like Bias

Metaphors Help Us Understand Consent, Bias, and Microaggressions

Posted Oct 09, 2016

A few years ago people put out an educational video on sexual assault and consent using the example of making tea.  It seemed to communicate the issue really well and made the rounds again this summer.

You can watch the video here:

A Washington Post piece describes the video in detail:



"The video is striking in its simplicity. A staid British voice details various scenarios. It’s equal parts tongue-in-cheek and somber.

"If you say, ‘Hey, would you like a cup of tea?,' and they're like, 'Uh, you know, I'm not really sure,' then you can make them a cup of tea, or not, but be aware that they might not drink it.”

"And if they don't drink it, then, and this is the important bit, don't make them drink it. Just because you made it doesn't mean you're entitled to watch them drink it. And if they say, ‘No thank you,' then don't make them tea. At all.”"

The video seemed to effectively communicate a very complex and sensitive topic in a way that made people listen.

Getting the right audience to listen is important

One thing that makes it hard to develop effective educational videos on topics like sexual assault or consent is that the people you most want to reach are those who are least likely to watch your video or understand its message.  

Metaphors can help bridge that gap.  This next video focuses on microaggressions, implicit bias, and racism.  These are extremely sensitive topics. For people who want to reduce their own bias, it can be threatening to recognize how stereotypes and prejudice influence your own thinking and how hurtful your behavior can be.  This can make us defensive and make it harder to be open to or understand a message.  

People who are less open to the idea that racism still operates in the United States may be even less open to learning more about microaggressions and subtle forms of prejudice and racism.  Many people bristle at the term 'implicit bias', even though it is one of the best documented phenomenon in social psychology.  For some people, the very language may seem like oversensitivity, a 'culture of victimhood' or 'politically correctness'.  During the vice presidential debate, Michael Pence referred to the idea as 'demeaning'.  

Anyone can recognize the bigotry of a skinhead.  It's easy to say 'that's not me'.  It is much harder to understand subtler and more pervasive forms of racism.  It is difficult to look that ugliness in the face.  It is harder to see it within ourselves, within the people we love, or the people we respect.  But scientific evidence shows us that implicit bias is real.  How do you reach people who don't want to hear the message?

Metaphors are images that help us understand one situation by comparing it to another.  In the example above, wanting tea is used as a metaphor to help us understand sexual desire.  Metaphors are very effective because they work on an implicit and emotional level, rather than an explicit and rational one.  They are also very efficient in that they embed many different dimensions, emotional layers, and ideas into one simple idea.  Psychological research on metaphors shows that choice of a metaphor completely changes how we approach problem solving.  For example, Paul Thibodeau and Lera Borodistsky wrote a paper describing how using metaphors of crime as a virus or crime as a beast activate entirely different associations.  People exposed to those different metaphors produce and endorse entirely different solutions to reducing crime.  

I think this video on microaggressions makes extremely effective use of mosquito bites as a metaphor. Mosquito bites are something we all understand. They are both trivial and maddening.  They happen to all of us, but some much more than others.  And although they are often just an annoyance, sometimes they are deadly.

Analyzing the video.  This video's use of the metaphor builds on several well established psychological principles.  The goal of the video is to communicate to people who don't yet understand what microaggressions are or who deny the impact or existence of ethnic or racial stereotypes and bias. 

  • The video does not begin by putting the issue in a racial context.  Such contexts are emotionally charged. They also activate many associations with related content, such as threat, guilt, and political beliefs.  
  • The video is disarming.  We are most open to new ideas and least likely to act on implicit bias when we feel safe.  By opening with a non-threatening scene, it makes people more open to the ideas being communicated.  
  • The video uses a metaphor to describe microaggressions: Mosquito bites.  We can all relate to that.
  • It provides clear examples of microaggressions while making effective use of the metaphor.  So we see people being the victims of microaggressions and their aggressors turning from friendly humans to giant mosquitos. And we see how the microaggressions can suck the life out of you.
  • The video focuses on the victim, engaging empathy.  This is first communicated by watching the mosquito swell with the blood of its victims.  But we also see how swarms of mosquitos and repeated victimization could affect individuals.  This engages the viewer's empathy.  And it demonstrates how someone looking in from the outside might think a victim is over-reacting to 'one little thing', when it is just the last of a swarm of 'bites'.  
  • The video moves from the common and minor to the rarer and devastating.  As the viewer comes to understand the pervasiveness of microaggressions, it becomes easier to see how implicit biases that lead to microaggressions could lead to mosquitos engaging in unrecognized acts of discrimination.  It is easier to see how easily that could happen because we are not identifying with the mosquito.  
  • It makes the metaphor explicit.  At the end we circle back to the beginning and the implicit becomes explicit.  We are back in the bus stop. We see the effects of mosquito bites.  And, oh yes, by mosquito bites we mean microaggressions.  

I think this is particularly important because not using a loaded word - microaggression - at the beginning keeps people's defenses down so they can listen. Worth watching.