Posted in Miscellany

how metaphors impact reality: is crime a beast or a virus?

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.

Choose carefully.


Lilian is the author of Web of Angels, a novel about a mom with DID (multiple personalities). She's also the author of the historical novels, The River Midnight and The Singing Fire, about secrets, friendship and motherhood in 19th century Poland and London.

4 thoughts on “how metaphors impact reality: is crime a beast or a virus?

  1. Oh! Oh! I love this! Jacques Derrida was very keen on metaphor and how much it influenced and drew upon the fantasies in the mind to create meaning. I’m so glad someone is doing some pragmatic research to prove his point.

  2. That’s fascinating! I’ve read bits of the book Metaphors We Live By, which deals with similar ideas, and it’s so interesting. Language is SO powerful, in ways we often don’t recognize.

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