Friday, May 27, 2011


Nearly everyone acknowledges that language is powerful.  We may underestimate its power however.  A post at Psychology Today illustrates the effects of metaphors on people's perceptions
. . . . 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.
The most frightening part of the study is that no one seems respondent's didn't know they were being manipulated.
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.
Political consultants have intuitively and skillfully used metaphors since Mark Hanna, and English teachers have bored students to tears about metaphors.  Now the government seems to be getting into the act.
A small research arm of the U.S. government's intelligence establishment wants to understand how speakers of Farsi, Russian, English, and Spanish see the world by building software that automatically evaluates their use of metaphors.
 The program is billed as a counter-terrorism effort.
All this to say: The Metaphor Program may represent a nine-figure investment by the government in understanding how people use language. But that's because metaphor studies aren't light or frilly and IARPA isn't afraid of taking on unusual sounding projects if they think they might help intelligence analysts sort through and decode the tremendous amounts of data pouring into their minds.
On the bright side, I get to use this article so show that studying metaphors is "practical."  On the other hand, I have this nagging worry about the government using part of that "nine-figure investment" to create super propaganda.  Orwell's warnings should never be far from one's mind with news like this.

(HT Big Boy Blogger Andrew Sullivan for links to original posts)

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