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Rich and Co.

Importance of a Single Word/Idea in Communicating on Complex Topics

“Exposure to even a single metaphor can induce substantial differences in opinion about how to solve problems.”

Financial Services Topics are Complex and Hard to Communicate
The public and policy discussion of defined contribution retirement plans have been dominated by fear-mongering and metaphors and rhetorical tactics to demonize the system, employers, providers and other stakeholders.

Here is an example of the complexities in communications today.  Not just are readers searching out instant news 24/7/365, but key words – often just one, this research suggests – can turn the public dialog “for” or “against.”

One needs to be communications, social media and digital tools and psychologically sophisticated.   This post is long and somewhat technical but there are some good insights on strategy and tactics on complex issues and solutions.

  • “You can figure out how to communicate your message and find the right set of analogies and metaphors that will lead people to the same conclusion.”
  • The way we talk about complex and abstract ideas is suffused with metaphor
  • Metaphors shape conversation and can have significant consequences for determining what is the right approach to solving difficult problems. 

A new study, finds public support can hinge on a single metaphor used to describe a serious problem like crime. (and the defined contribution system, ed.)

“Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning”

The public is more supportive of increased law enforcement if its intention is to tame a crime “beast” rather than cure a crime “virus.”

  •  “Some estimates suggest that one out of every 25 words we encounter is a metaphor,” 
  • “But we didn’t know the extent to which these metaphors influence people.”

While the research, stemming from curiosity about how subtle cues and common figures of speech can frame approaches to difficult problems, focused specifically on attitudes about crime, the findings can be used to understand the implications of how a casual or calculated turn of phrase can influence debates and change minds.

  • “We can’t talk about any complex situation—like crime—without using metaphors
  • Metaphors aren’t just used for flowery speech
  • They shape the conversation for things we’re trying to explain and figure outAnd they have consequences for determining what we decide is the right approach to solving problems.”

“People like to think they’re objective and making decisions based on numbers.  They want to believe they’re logical. But they’re really being swayed by metaphors.”

The way we talk about complex and abstract ideas is suffused with metaphor. In five experiments, we explore how these metaphors influence the way that we reason about complex issues and forage for further information about them. We find that:

  • even the subtlest instantiation of a metaphor (via a single word) can have a powerful influence over how people attempt to solve social problems like crime and how they gather information to make “well-informed” decisions. 
  • Interestingly, we find that the influence of the metaphorical framing effect is covert: people do not recognize metaphors as influential in their decisions; instead they point to more “substantive” (often numerical) information as the motivation for their problem-solving decision. 
  • Metaphors in language appear to instantiate frame-consistent knowledge structures and invite structurally consistent inferences. 

Far from being mere rhetorical flourishes, metaphors have profound influences on how we conceptualize and act with respect to important societal issues. We find that exposure to even a single metaphor can induce substantial differences in opinion about how to solve social problems: differences that are larger, for example, than pre-existing differences in opinion between Democrats and Republicans.

The influence of the metaphorical framing effect is covert:

  • people do not recognize metaphors as influential in their decisions
  • instead they point to more “substantive” (often numerical) information as the motivation for their problem-solving decision
  • Metaphors in language appear to instantiate frame-consistent knowledge structures and invite structurally consistent inferences.

Far from being mere rhetorical flourishes, metaphors have profound influences on how we conceptualize and act with respect to important issues.   

Previous work has demonstrated that using different metaphors can lead people to reason differently about notions like time, emotion, or electricity.  For example, people’s reasoning about electricity flow differed systematically depending on the metaphoric frame used to describe electricity (flowing water vs. teeming crowds).

Such findings on metaphorical framing are grounded in a larger body of work that has established the importance of linguistic framing in reasoning, and the importance of narrative structure in instantiating meaning.

One of the most interesting features of the effects of metaphor we find throughout these studies is that its power is covert.  Together these studies suggest that unbeknownst to us, metaphors powerfully shape how we reason about social issues.

These findings suggest that metaphors can influence how people conceptualize and in turn approach solving an important social issue, even if people don’t explicitly perceive the metaphor as being especially influential.

Remarkably, presenting an otherwise identical report with only one word different in the introductory frame yielded systematically different problem solving suggestions.  

While in Experiment 1, the metaphoric frame was established using vivid verbs with rich relational meaning (e.g., crime was said to be either preying & lurking, or infecting & plaguing). The findings of Experiment 2 demonstrate that these relational elements need not be specified explicitly.  People spontaneously instantiated the relevant relational inferences even given a single metaphorical noun.

Interestingly, despite the clear influence of the metaphor, we found that participants generally identified the crime statistics, which were the same for both groups, and not the metaphor, as the most influential aspect of the report.

…when given the opportunity to identify the most influential aspect of the report, the vast majority ignored the metaphor…In Experiment 4 we found that the effect of metaphorical framing persists even when the list of all possible approaches to solving crime is explicitly presented. …peoples’ responses were influenced by the frame that they read.   

Additionally, the results of Experiment 4 reveal that the metaphorical frame influences how people go about gathering information for future problem solving. People tended to seek additional information about the city that confirmed their initial (metaphor-induced) suspicion about how to solve crime.

As we saw in the previous experiments, when given the opportunity to identify the most influential aspect of the report, the vast majority ignored the metaphor. Only 18 participants (10%) reported that the metaphor influenced their decision.

These findings suggest that metaphors can gain power by coercing further incoming information to fit with the relational structure suggested by the metaphor.

We found that metaphors exert an influence over people’s reasoning by instantiating frame-consistent knowledge structures, and inviting structurally-consistent inferences Further, when asked to seek out more information to inform their decisions, we found that people chose information that was likely to confirm and elaborate the bias suggested by the metaphor – an effect that persisted even when people were presented with a full set of possible solutions.

Our results suggest that:

  • even fleeting and seemingly unnoticed metaphors in natural language can instantiate complex knowledge structures and influence people’s reasoning in a way that is similar to the role that schemas, scripts, and frames have been argued to play in reasoning and memory
  • That is, the metaphors provided our participants with a structured framework for understanding, influenced the inferences that they made about the problem, and suggested different causal interventions for solving the problem
  • This was true even though the metaphors themselves did not strike our participants as particularly influential.

Consistent with previous work on meaning instantiation, we find that the metaphors were most effective when they were presented early in the narrative and were then able to help organize and coerce further incoming information.

  • For example, Bransford and Johnson demonstrate that a procedural description of washing clothes was understood and remembered best when participants knew the topic of the passage before they heard the description
  • When the topic was given at the end of the passage or not at all, participants reported being unable to make sense of what they had heard and were able to recall few details of the description on a memory test.

For example, Bowdle & Gentner suggest that metaphors when first encountered are processed as analogies or structural alignments.  

  • When we first hear about crime described as a beast, for example, we may carry out comparisons to discover any alignable similarities between crime and beasts
  • If such similarities are discovered, they can license the transfer of inferences from one domain to the other, and the most striking or stable structural similarities can be highlighted and stored in memory
  • With exposure to the system of “beast” metaphors, an elaborated knowledge structure can emerge for thinking about crime that mirrors in important relational structure the representations we have about the behavior of wild beasts.

Through analogical transfer in this way, systems of metaphors in language can encourage the creation of systems of knowledge in a wide range of domains. Our reasoning about many complex domains then can be mediated through these patchworks of analogically-created representations.

Importance of Metaphors
By some estimates, English speakers produce one unique metaphor for every 25 words that they utter. Metaphor is clearly not just an ornamental flourish, but a fundamental part of the language system. This is particularly true in discussions of social policy, where it often seems impossible to “literally” discuss immigration, the economy, or crime.

If metaphors routinely influence how we make inferences and gather information about the social problems that confront us, then the metaphors in our linguistic system may be offering a unique window onto how we construct knowledge and reason about complex issues.

  • We find that metaphors can have a powerful influence over how people attempt to solve complex problems and how they gather more information to make “well-informed” decisions
  • Our findings shed further light on the mechanisms through which metaphors exert their influence, by instantiating frame-consistent knowledge structures, and inviting structurally-consistent inferences
  • Interestingly, the influence of the metaphorical framing is covert: people do not recognize metaphors as an influential aspect in their decisions.

Finally, the influence of metaphor we find is strong: different metaphorical frames created differences in opinion as big or bigger than those between Democrats and Republicans.

 

 

 

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Written by Rich and Co.

February 28, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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