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Study shows crime metaphors can influence public opinion

(SERENITY NGUYEN/The Stanford Daily)

When it comes to crime, one word may be enough to sway people’s perceptions.

This finding came from the Stanford study “Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning,” published in the Feb. 23 edition of PloS ONE. The study shows that people are more likely to support harsher laws and increased jailing of offenders when told crime is a “beast” preying on a community. When crime is described as a “virus” infecting a city, however, people are more likely to propose social reform.

First-year psychology graduate student Paul Thibodeau, the study’s lead author, said the results demonstrate the powerful influence of metaphor in shaping solutions to complex problems.

“Things like crime and other difficult social issues are very abstract and complicated,” he said. “It’s hard to think clearly about how to solve the issue. Metaphors about crime are a little easier to talk about. When we use metaphors for crime, we import structures from other domains.”

In a series of five experiments, participants were given one of two versions of a report on rising crime rates in the fictional city of Addison. The versions framed crime either as a “beast” or a “virus” but offered identical statistics detailing the rise. Participants were then asked to propose solutions to the crime.

Researchers found that the subjects’ responses varied depending on the metaphor used. In one study, 71 percent of subjects proposed more law enforcement when told crime was a “beast,” compared to 54 percent of subjects who did so after reading crime was a “virus.”

When asked to cite the most influential part of the report, only 15 of the 485 participants selected the metaphor; the majority said the statistics held the most sway in determining their policy decisions.

Psychology assistant professor Lera Boroditsky, who co-authored the study, said these findings show the extent to which people underestimate the role of language in decision-making.

“These studies show the power of language in framing our decisions, especially in cases where we don’t realize it,” she said. “We all like to think we make rational decisions, but even a single word can bring a whole knowledge structure that guides our reasoning.”

The study also accounted for political party affiliation, with Republicans being 10 percent more likely than Democrats to suggest enforcement-based solutions. Subjects who read that crime was a “beast” were about 20 percent more likely to support such solutions, regardless of affiliation.

Law professor Robert Weisberg said the study reveals how crime rhetoric itself has become a metaphor for political and social unease.

“Crime enters political discourse in a way where it substitutes for other issues,” he said. “It’s a good metaphoric issue for people expressing their anger or frustration at other things.”

Since crime is an inherently loaded topic, policy makers and public officials should ensure the language used to describe it does not unduly inflame passions, Weisberg said.

“Colorful language is not always accurate,” he said. “We have a huge apparatus of criminal justice in the United States and we want to see if it is solving problems efficiently. It is not a military machine or something out of a sci-fi movie…neutralizing the language with which crime is discussed would be a good thing.”

Thibodeau cautions, however, that language is just one of many factors that influence people’s opinions on crime and other issues.

“It worked pretty well when we gave people a report on crime and they didn’t have background context,” he said. “In the real world, people have more information. All things being equal, subtle metaphoric clues can help us structure how we think about abstract and complex issues.”


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