In a series of five experiments, Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky from Stanford University have shown how influential metaphors can be. They can change the way we try to solve big problems like crime. They can shift the sources that we turn to for information. They can polarise our opinions to a far greater extent than, say, our political leanings. And most of all, they do it under our noses. Writers know how powerful metaphors can be, but it seems that most of us fail to realise their influence in our everyday lives.
In these experiments, students read the same crime reports with one difference. The reports either referred to crime as a wild beast lurking in neighbourhoods or as a virus infecting and plaguing neighbourhoods.
Students who read about crime referred to as a beast were much more likely to opt for more police and prisons, while those who read that crime was a virus were more likely to opt for social reforms.
The metaphor used had a greater impact in this than did the students’ political affiliation. As writers, we believe in the power of the word. Now we have scientific evidence.