Why Metaphors Matter

by Mike Clayton  - November 12, 2014


People like me, who train speakers and write books like ‘How to Speak so People Listen’ are fond of the advice to use metaphors to spice up your language and make people more receptive to your message. And I stand by that advice.

But I recently came upon some experimental data that ups the stakes on what metaphor you choose: metaphors don’t just matter, the choice you make matters profoundly.

Two researchers from Stanford University Department of Psychology tested people’s solutions to social problems. In each test, they described the problem of crime metaphorically, in one of two ways (and can’t you just hear a politician doing likewise?)

Description 1: crime is a virus

Description 2: crime is a beast

Beyond being a viscerally engaging piece of language, the researchers wanted to know if the choice of metaphor would affect the way the subjects responded to the social problem of crime. And indeed it did.

People exposed to the beast metaphor were more likely to favour enforcement-based interventions, whilst the ones who were offered the virus metaphor were more likely to favour a systemic reform-based solution.

This was despite the fact that, after the experiment, few of the subjects were able to recall the metaphor they had read. None of them thought that the choice of metaphor would affect their reasoning.

This, of course, is a direct example of ‘framing bias’ – how we frame a problem or question will bias the answer you get. But it is, to my knowledge, the first direct experimental evidence that framing bias works at the level of metaphor.

So, when you are preparing your next proposal, presentation or speech, don’t just make time to use metaphors: take care how you choose them.


PLoS One. 2011 Feb 23;6(2):e16782. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0016782.
Metaphors we think with: the role of metaphor in reasoning.
Paul H Thibodeau, Lera Boroditsky

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Powerhouse, by Mike clayton


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