When talking about cancer, metaphors matter

Cancer is hard to talk about. It’s serious, often frightening, and complicated. So, as with many complex topics, we often turn to metaphor. In discussions of cancer, metaphors are rampant. One in particular — that of a fight — is especially common.

She’s battling cancer
He’s putting up a real fight against his disease
You can beat this

Almost five years ago, someone I’m close to was diagnosed, and I started to realize how inappropriate this language felt — at least for this particular case I was witnessing. There was no fighting. There were bed-bound days, invasive procedures, and sympathy cards. One might say that just showing up to every appointment — especially those where you know you’ll feel terrible afterwards — is fighting, but that’s not how it looked to me. So I started to wonder: how does this pervasive “fight” metaphor affect the way we think about cancer? Are there better alternatives?

I was intrigued to find that I wasn’t the first who had asked these questions, and that there’s actually a substantial field of research on language related to illness. There were also articles in popular media, which would pop up without fail each time a famous person was publicly diagnosed with or died from cancer. People were not only using fight-related language to talk about cancer (e.g., Ruth Bader Ginsburg v. Cancer), but they were also questioning whether that language was appropriate (John McCain did not ‘lose’ his battle with glioblastoma — because cancer is not a war) and offering up alternatives (Cancer is a Journey, not a Battle).

But for all the interesting research and commentaries that were out there, I still wanted empirical evidence. When someone talks about “fighting a battle” with cancer, how does that affect the way we think about the illness? And if “battle” is a harmful metaphor, is “journey” better, as is often suggested?

Together with my collaborators Zsófia Demjén, Elena Semino, and Lera Boroditsky, we ran some experiments to learn more about the ways that “battle” and “journey” metaphors affect emotions and thoughts about someone who has cancer.

We learned that when people are told that someone is battling cancer, they predict that the person will be less likely to make peace with their situation and more likely to feel guilty if they don’t recover — because they should have “fought” harder.

We found this by running 5 experiments with a total of 1,629 participants. Every participant received a paragraph that talked about someone battling or someone on a journey with cancer. Aside from the metaphor, these passages were the same, and all participants indicated their agreement with the same two statements after reading:

  • He* will feel guilty that he hasn’t done enough if he does not recover.
  • He can make peace with his experience.

The fact that participants believed that someone battling would be more likely to feel guilty and less likely to make peace should give us pause. These are not optimistic beliefs and may not be conducive to healing.

But it’s also crucial to remember that this was an effect averaged over a lot of participants. It does not tell us that the battle is pernicious for all people in all cases. There may very well be people who prefer the battle metaphor, who feel energized and motivated by it, and who feel it most accurately captures their situation. But that’s a decision for people with cancer to make.

It’s not a decision for doctors, journalists, researchers, or even close family and friends to make. We should not impose our language on people with cancer (or any other illnesses, for that matter). If their experience is a battle, it’s a battle. And if it’s not a battle to them, we should not call it one.

The most important take-away for me, then, is not that we should use one metaphor and not another. It’s that metaphors are powerful tools, and we need to be thoughtful about how we wield them.

Here’s the link to the full paper. Please cite it as: Hendricks, R.K., Demjén, Z., Semino, E., & Boroditsky, L. (2019). Emotional Implications of Metaphor: Consequences of Metaphor Framing for Mindset about Cancer. Metaphor and Symbol, 33(4).

Featured image by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

*In all studies except one, the subject of the paragraph was a male. We did this so we could most clearly understand the effects of the metaphor when all other characteristics of the information were the same. We did explore gender in one study (Experiment 4 in the paper posted above), but a lot more should be done to understand how the ways in which identity might interact with the effects that metaphors have on thinking about cancer.

The emergence of a new way to talk about time (in research and in real life)

Events are rescheduled all the time. Many of us live highly planned and structured lives, in which changes to plans are more of the rule than the exception. When changing the time of an event, you might say that a dinner has been pushed back an hour, or that a trip has been moved up. But you probably don’t say that the meeting has been pushed to the right. Unless you’re a member of the US military.

That’s the main finding from research that I completed with Ben Bergen and Tyler Marghetis. Specifically, members of the US military find lateral metaphors (the words “left” and “right”) more acceptable for talking about time than civilians do. Phrases like “Next Wednesday’s meeting was moved two days to the right, to Friday” were more acceptable to military members than to civilians.

You can read more about that research in an earlier post I wrote, but one of the most important parts of that research is the so what? — why we found it useful to work on this topic in the first place. It’s not just that one subgroup of English speakers uses conventions that others don’t. Instead, we find it significant that English speakers generally think about time in terms of lateral space (something that has been shown extensively by other cognitive psychologists), but only a subset of us (military members, apparently) actually talk about it that way. Yet it’s a logical way to talk. It avoids ambiguity inherent in phrases like “Next Wednesday’s meeting was moved forward two days.” (Is this meeting on Monday or Friday? People are divided on this answer).

In this regard, military members might be ahead (to the right?) of the rest of us — they might have conventionalized a system of metaphors that will gradually become more mainstream.

When we first wrote these ideas and presented them to academic audiences, I thought there was a chance we were right — that someday it would be very normal in standard American English for someone to say that “Next Wednesday’s meeting was moved two days to the right, to Friday.” I thought this because my husband is in the military and says things like this to me regularly. Soon he might not be in the military, but might continue to say things like this, particularly at work with civilians. Who might, in turn, start using the lateral metaphors at home with their own families. And so on. It seems possible that these lateral metaphors are in the process of catching on with the larger population of American English speakers.

This seemed like a solid enough idea in theory, but I wasn’t sure I’d put money on it actually happening.

Then I saw this billboard in a metro station.


To be honest, I didn’t know what being “left of boom” meant at first. But when I actually went to the site, I learned that the company behind the ad (authentic8) is selling a secure remote browser called Silo. Their entire advertisement (in billboards and online) is an extension of the metaphor that earlier things are to the left and later things to the right. “Boom” is “an exploit, a data leak, compliance violation, or worse.” Bad cyber security tools “work right of boom. They assess and analyze content after it’s hit your network. By then it’s too late.”

I don’t know the particular target audience for these ads. Maybe many people in companies that might buy Silo have military (or government) work experience. In these cases, it’s likely that those targeted by the ads are at least somewhat familiar with this explicit lateral metaphor for talking about time. But I’d also guess that military- and government-adjacent people are not the only target customers. Authentic8 is counting on potential customers to either be familiar with lateral metaphors or to intuitively understand them.

I have no idea if their advertising strategy is effective. Do people even understand the ads? Or, on the flip side, do they understand them so easily that they don’t even notice the strange metaphor? Will one of my colleagues start talking about moving meetings left and right soon?

I don’t know — so stay tuned!

How metaphorical is the “blue wave”?

The political “blue wave” is a hot topic right now.

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Trends in Google searches for the term “blue wave” since just after the 2016 US Presidential election.

The idea is that the 2018 midterm elections could result in a large turnover of red (Republican) Congressional seats to blue (Democrat) candidates.

As I’ve gradually been hearing the term more and more (and so has Google, according to my search on Google Trends above), I’ve started to wonder just how metaphorical the blue wave really is.

To clarify, I know it’s not literal (though with climate change, even that seems possible). But to be truly metaphorical, the term needs to be relatively productive. When used in a linguistic sense, productive means that the comparison can be built on in a number of ways that still make sense. For example, metaphors that compare quality or quantity to height are very productive. We can apply this idea metaphorically in a many different ways — we can get our hopes up, prices can dropor products can be top-notch. Terms that are figurative but aren’t productive are more likely to be idioms than metaphors (like barking up the wrong tree).

I wondered if “blue wave” was being used productively, as we’d expect from a truly metaphorical expression, or whether its use was more standard and idiom-like.

A quick search suggests that “blue wave” is certainly productive. Writers aren’t just dropping the term in a canned way for a dose of imagery, but are instead extending the metaphor in creative ways. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Don’t get ahead of yourselves, Democrats. That ‘blue wave’ may not be that high. Here, we have a reference to the wave’s height as an indication of the number of Congress seats we might see turn from Republican to Democrat. Interestingly, though, the author doesn’t stick exclusively to the height comparison, also referring to the wave’s strength and speed as the metaphorical analogues to potential Democrat victories. The “blue wave” is carried throughout the piece, as the author ends on this colorful note (emphasis my own):

Prospects of an impending blue wave have clearly returned and Democratic leaders would be wise to ride the wave rather than attempt to get ahead of it lest it is they who are swamped and washed off the surfboard they hoped would carry them to victory.

  • Will the Democrats Catch a “Blue Wave”? As in the example above, here the blue wave is something that can carry Democrats to success. For me, this evokes the image of a woman in a crisp pantsuit surfing a big, blue Hawaiian wave. Nice.
  • 7 Ways to Power the “Blue Wave.” In this headline, the wave’s power, more than its size, is highlighted. Clearly we need a wave strong enough to make its way from the coast to the prairies, so it makes sense that we need at least 7 ways to power it.
  • Why Democrats are worried the “blue wave” might stop short of Florida. Another headline that emphasizes the spatial aspect of the blue wave — it needs to travel across the mammoth of a country to increase the number of Democrats elected in non-coastal places. The metaphor falls apart a little here, though, because if there’s any state that a wave should not have trouble reaching, it’s probably the one that’s a massive peninsula.
  • Is A Big, Blue Wave Forming Off The Political Coast? This headline references the origin of waves. They form off the coast. Upon reading the article, however, “off the coast” seems to actually be referring to the middle of the country. This is a bit confusing, as I’ve never heard of a wave forming in Indiana or Missouri, but it sounds nice, so let’s go with it.
  • ‘Blue wave’ would have undercurrent in California races. Now we’re getting into nuanced ocean metaphors.
  • Is a Blue Wave on Its Way? This article references turbulence among the President’s voters, which is another cool adaptation of a specific feature of waves… but it does make me wonder, why exactly are the Republican President’s voters riding on the blue wave?
  • With such a close race, the “blue wave” wasn’t crushed – but it might be dampened. This sentence, from an article describing a loss for Democrats, refers to another salient feature of waves — they’re wet. It’s not exactly intuitive to compare political wins to wetness, but I guess the implications is that the wetter the wave, the better (for Democrats).

To be honest, these creative “blue wave” uses don’t always make total sense to me, especially upon reflection. But they are creative, and in many cases productive, and that might be enough to get people thinking about, using, and acting on the “blue wave” this November.

Cover photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash.

Note: Since publishing this piece, I have learned that Indiana does experience large waves thanks to Lake Michigan. Thanks to a reader for keeping me informed!

The Midterms are Coming: Effective Approaches for Encouraging People to VOTE

Midterm elections are coming up in the US, which means an opportunity to turn a horrific political reality into one that’s at least slightly less horrific. Needless to say, with many people’s lives and the future of our democracy on the line, we absolutely need to vote this November.*

Somewhat understandably, voting rates in midterm elections tend to be lower than they are for Presidential elections. In the 2014 midterm election, only 37% of eligible Americans voted. This midterm “falloff” (compared to Presidential election years) has been especially pronounced among the youngest voters, so this group represents a prime target for Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaigns.

There’s quite a bit of research on different forms of GOTV campaigns–for example, calling vs. brochures vs. in-person conversations. It’s helpful to know which forms of outreach are most effective (and why), but beyond that, it’s helpful to know exactly what language, when used in these various efforts, is most effective for encouraging people to vote.

Here are a few tips based in social science research for what to write or say when encouraging people to vote:

BE a voter: Use the noun, not the verb

When you ask people to vote, you’re asking them to engage in a specific behavior. This may be effective for some people, but research shows that if you instead ask them to be a voter, people are actually more likely to vote. The subtle difference is in whether the phrase taps into people’s sense of their personal identity (who they can be, not just what they can do).

The researchers who investigated the effects of these different phrases found that people who were reminded of the kind of person they can be (a voter) were more likely to register to vote and, in two separate statewide elections, actually vote than those who were reminded of what they can do (vote).

Make a plan

Many people who intend to vote don’t actually do so. They may like the idea of voting and know which candidates they prefer, but then election day comes, and they forget. Or they become busy with other things, or realize they don’t have a ride. As we all know, there are many things that can come up to prevent a well-intentioned voter from making it to the polling center.

Voting advocates can combat many of these obstacles by reminding people to make a plan to vote. A group researchers had the help of voter mobilization callers to test two scripts — one that just encouraged people to vote, and one that also encouraged them to make a plan (including when they’d vote, how they’d get to the polling center, and what else they’d be doing that day). In the 2008 presidential primary (Barack Obama vs. Hillary Clinton), people who had been asked about their plans were much more likely to vote than those who had been called but hadn’t discussed plans.

Everyone’s doing it

For better and worse, we like to keep up with each other. If we hear that others are doing something good, we want to do it too. And research confirms that this is true of voting as well. People who read that voter turnout was expected to be high were more likely to vote than those who read that turnout was expected to be low. The work suggests that people aren’t motivated by the idea of being the rare voter, but rather by the idea of following the group to the polls.

We can do this

November is soon, so now’s the time to GOTV. Fortunately, voters** have participated in the primaries leading up to these midterms at higher rates than usual. Indifference is not an option, and with a solid research base, we have plenty of tools to increase voter turnout this November.

And if you’re looking for a good way to contribute to the GOTV movement, check out Postcards to Voters, a group of volunteers that sends handwritten reminders to targeted voters reminding them to vote in key elections for Democrats. You can read more about the ways that the effort is informed by research in an earlier post.

*Full disclosure: Although I value encouraging people to vote, regardless of how they will vote, I unequivocally advocate for people to vote for Democrats in November. I value treating all people equally, with compassion and humanity; rejecting hate; and basing policy decisions in the best available evidence, and today’s Republicans have demonstrated that they are incapable or unwilling to do these things.

**especially Democrats, likely at least in part because of deep antipathy to Trump and his party.

Cover photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash

These are not “immigration” policies


Like so many Americans, I am horrified that the US government has been separating children from their parents and caretakers when they cross the border. At a loss for how to talk about the atrocity, I turned to a spate of current news articles and the dictionary for ideas. This is what I found.

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If that’s what immigration is, that is certainly not what these policies are about. Fortunately, I found a few more apt descriptions:

Reminiscent of the Holocaust.

A chilling article in the LA Times features Holocaust survivors’ own descriptions of the horror they faced and the parallels they see in the current policies.

Taking children away from their parents will affect them for the rest of their lives in ways we cannot yet know. It’s like the radiation that lingers after a bomb goes off: These people can never return to the safety of their home or themselves. The ground has been damaged permanently.
-Gene Czap, former resident of a German “displaced persons” camp

Reminiscent of the zoo.


A sharp article in the by Philip Rucker in the Washington Post opens by stating: “President Trump this week likened Hispanic immigrants to vermin. He warned that they would ‘pour into and infest our country.’”

Immigrants are people. I can’t believe that actually needs to be said.

“Zero-tolerance” and family separation practices are not “immigration” policies. They are racism. They’re inhumane. They’re dehumanizing. These policies are turning America into a shithole country, and we should should fight against them until that is no longer the case.

Featured photo by Cole Patrick on Unsplash

We need a language makeover for dating and desire


At the end of 2017, the Me Too movement pushed an important issue to the front of our collective consciousness: sexual harassment and assault are horrifically common. Often, (but not always!) men have been the assailants and women have been the victims. How has our society made so much progress in so many areas, yet remained one that allows many men to prey on women, often with no consequence? The causes are complex, systemic, and intertwined, and many people are more qualified to speak to them than I am (for a few examples, Dr. Gerald Walton for The Conversation, Anna North for Vox, and Robert Cox for HuffPost).

But one under-appreciated cause of this social morass may be the metaphors we use to talk about courting and desire. New research by Drs. Jarrod Bock and Melissa Burkley explored whether the predator-prey metaphors that are often used to talk about dating and desire affect the way people think about rape. As Burkley points out in this great synopsis of the work, predator-prey metaphors are common in language about dating broadly, not just in recent #MeToo discourse (for example, when a male is courting a woman, it’s common to refer to “the chase,” or a man seeking a woman might be “on the prowl”). Importantly, the language is not restricted to men pursuing women — the predators and prey can be any gender. But the research focused on the most common predator-prey relationship — of men chasing women.

The researchers found that these metaphors are more than just a way of talking. In fact, men who read a description that included predator-prey metaphors held more “beliefs that perpetuate rape (e.g., women who are raped while drunk or sexily dressed asked for it; if a girl doesn’t fight back it’s not rape; women often lie about being raped)” than men who read about the same scenario, but without the predator language. In other words, these metaphors encouraged specific patterns in thought, consistent with thinking of men as predators and women as prey.

This does not mean that after a man hears the song “Animals” by Maroon 5, he’ll go out and rape the next woman he sees. But it does suggest that the more he hears language like the lyrics of Maroon 5’s song (“Baby I’m preying on you tonight/ Hunt you down eat you alive/ Just like animals”) the more normal it might be in his mind to take advantage of women — to prey on them.

Even though I think we should nix predator metaphors, I should also note that a number of women have appropriated these metaphors, using them in a way that empowers women speaking out. The hashtag #WomenWhoRoar shows that women don’t have to be relegated to prey.

Appropriation aside, predator metaphors are still dangerous because they perpetuate images of one party (usually men) chasing and capturing the other (usually women). This language contributes to rape culture, regardless of the genders of the predator and prey. The study by Bock and Burkley quantifies this problem, which is all the evidence I need to advocate that we enthusiastically drop predator metaphors from the way we talk about dating and desire.

So predator metaphors are out. While I’m tossing common metaphors for courting out the window, I’ll add another group to the no-go list — sports metaphors. When sports metaphors are used, it’s primarily men who aim to “score” with women, though both genders are guilty of “playing” hard-to-get and referring to all kinds of sexual activities with baseball metaphors (I’ve griped about this in the past). There’s no empirical research showing that these sports metaphors shape thought in unproductive ways, but I’ll speculate that they do. If we think about dating as a game, how seriously are we going to take it? Starting a relationship or having sex or whatever kids these days do… they’re all big deals, and probably more successful when treated as something more important than a sports game. Plus in sports, the objective is to win — to out-perform your opponents. I’ve never heard of a healthy relationship in which the two parties spent their time trying to defeat each other. So sports metaphors are out too.

What does that leave us with? Metaphors are so pervasive, especially for complicated situations like romance, so it’s unlikely that we’ll just stop using metaphors to talk about courting and desire altogether. We need more productive domains to compare them to — domains where there’s mutual respect. Where the aim is not to win or to satisfy a hunger, but to be content, safe — happy.

To be honest, I don’t have many good suggestions here, but I don’t doubt that good possibilities exist. A few somewhat corny clichés might work, like when we say that two people “have chemistry.” When combining the two elements, the product is something new and distinct from the individuals; no one wins. Rather than being “on the hunt,” you can search for someone with whom you “bond” — your “reactant.” Or maybe the go-to American peanut butter and jelly metaphor would work. “I’m just searching for someone to be the smooth peanut butter for my jelly.” Yeah, that’s not weird. Others have suggested that courting should be thought of as a dance — a collaborative effort consented to by both partners. Also intimate, pleasant, and beautiful.

I realize that guys might not rack up bro points by telling their buddies that they’re just looking for the sodium to their chloride, some sweet grape jelly, or a waltzing partner. These metaphors are not dude-approved. But I’m ok with that. #WomenWhoRoar

Cover photo by Stephane YAICH on Unsplash

Language shapes what we see

Language shapes the way we see the world. For example, the metaphors used to describe a concept like crime can shape the way people reason about it; native speakers of different languages tend to conceptualize time in ways consistent with their language; and when an object (say, a chair) is assigned the feminine grammatical gender in one language and the masculine gender in another, speakers of the former language actually think of that object as more feminine than speakers of the latter.

But new research (here’s the pdf) shows that the language we speak literally affects the way we see the world. By tracking people’s eye movements as they watched scenes unfold, researchers found that speakers tended to fixate more on parts of the scene that their language would require them to encode when communicating, relative to speakers of another language.

The experiment included German and Korean speakers. One way these two languages differ is in how they refer to spatial relationships between objects. In German (as in English), there’s a word for containment (in, which means the same as it does in English), which contrasts with the word used for one object supporting another (in German, auf, analogous to on in English). Preposition use in Korean isn’t dictated by whether one object contains or supports the other; instead, different prepositions are used depending on the tightness of the fit of the relationship. For example, putting a cap on a pen is a tight fit, which Korean describes with the word kkita. This contrasts with putting an apple in a bowl, which is a loose fit, so the preposition netha would be used instead (though the authors note that netha tends to be used for loose containment while notha is used for loose support, the line is a bit more blurred than in English or German).

In German, then, the most relevant part of a spatial relationship (for communication purposes) is whether one object contains or supports the other. In Korean, the most relevant part of a relationship is the tightness of fit. The researchers predicted that German and Korean speakers may habitually pay closer attention to certain parts of a scene — the ones their language requires them to communicate — than others.

In the experiment, participants watched videos of objects coming in contact with each other (screenshots are below), while the researchers tracked their eye movements. Participants always saw a pair (one video followed by a second) and rated how similar the two videos were to each other. Importantly, participants were not told which dimension their similarity ratings should be based on — this was for them to decide on their own.

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Consistent with language practices, Korean speakers based their similarity ratings on tightness of fit — for example, videos from the second and third rows above (both showing tight fits, and therefore typically described using kkita), were seen as more similar than the first and second, or the third and fourth were (both of which would include one kkita video and one netha or notha video). German speakers, on the other hand, based their ratings on containment vs. support. For them, the first and second (both described by auf) or the third and fourth (in) were more similar than the second and third (auf vs. in). Again, it’s especially relevant that participants were not told to use their language practices to determine similarity; they were simply encouraged to determine how similar different pairs were to each other, and their language practices guided them in this task.

The really novel part of this study, though, is in the eye-tracking. The researchers found that German speakers spent more time looking at the base figure (the bowl, block, or tray that the second object would sit on or in) than Korean speakers did, probably because that object contains more information for a person who needs to determine whether the relationship will be a supportive (on) or containment (in) one, which is what Germans habitually have to encode. Instead of looking at that base figure as much, Korean speakers looked more at the one that did the resting on or in, and particularly looked at the area where the objects intersected, which again holds the most information for speakers of a language that requires communicating the tightness of fit.

Even though participants were not watching these videos in order to communicate about them, their viewing patterns still reflected the tendencies of their languages. They have years of experience needing to pay attention to containment vs. support or tightness vs. looseness, so they now approach the world with a predisposition to look for those same characteristics that their language encodes.

This finding may not have huge practical consequences. People’s vision isn’t impaired by what their language encodes or doesn’t. But the study does show that our attention can be influenced by our language. Visual attention is a pretty low-level process, in the sense that it’s constant and so much of it happens without conscious awareness. That, I think, is why this study is so cool — even when people are watching simple videos of objects, their language shapes the way they approach the situation. Just imagine what our language does for us when we actually go out and navigate the world.

Cover photo by MabelAmber. CC.

Metaphors Trump Tweets By

Metaphors are everywhere — in our classrooms, hospitals, homes… and in Trump’s tweets.

In 1980, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson published a book, Metaphors We Live By, that catalyzed extensive research on the relationship between metaphor and thought. That book and much research since has argued that the metaphors we use in language reflect much deeper patterns in thought.

For example, we talk about arguments in terms of war — you can fight, defend, win, and lose both arguments and physical wars, for example. Researchers like Lakoff and Johnson suggest that we’re not merely talking about arguments in terms of wars, but actually thinking of them that way too.

Trump loves these metaphors.

Criticism directed at Schumer is a beating, to Trump. He also invokes the vivid idea of holding hostage to talk about arguing with Democrats during the government shutdown.

Another pervasive metaphor is the idea that good things are up (when you cheer someone up you lift their spirits, and in times of extreme happiness you’re on top of the world, for example). Relatedly, metaphors commonly express the idea that important things are large (like when we have big ideas or grandiose plans). Trump likes to rally his audiences by talking about how big America is(metaphorically), and the ways in which we are on top.

We dream big and reach high. And on the flip side, Trump’s enemies occupy low positions:

Another topic that we almost can’t talk about without invoking metaphors is time. There are many ways we use spatial metaphors to talk about time, but referring to the future as ahead of us and the past as behind is among one of the most common ways. Trump is well aware that forward is the direction of the future and of progress.

Then there’s the thing that, for Trump, is usually literal, but possibly for a small time became understood as metaphorical, which led to Trump’s assertion that it is MOST CERTAINLY LITERAL:

And in case you were wondering, the jury is still out on potential metaphorical underpinnings of covfefe.

Rule-breaking analogies

The defining feature of an analogy is that it compares two different things.

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Those two different things are often relatively different from each other. Differences between the two topics being compared are likely why analogies are illustrative — they help us understand new or complex topics by pointing out ways they’re similar to more familiar or simpler ones. The new or complex topic being explained is often abstract — something we can’t see or touch, while the more familiar or simpler one tends to be concrete.

For example, the “structure of an atom is like a solar system. Nucleus is the sun and electrons are the planets revolving around their sun.”

I’ve recently come across a few exceptions to these definitional rules of analogies. Although the exceptions still make comparisons in order to explain or illustrate something, they compare different features of one single thing — they both use time to explain time.

This might seem like a lazy or misguided way to communicate, but I think it works. Here are two examples.

The next one jumped off the page at me when I was reading The Remains of the Day:

All right, so neither of us are exactly in our first flush of youth, but you’ve got to keep looking forward… You’ve got to enjoy yourself. The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it.
-Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

My final example of a rule-breaking time analogy also jumped out at me, this time for its terrifying nature:

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Screenshot from New York Times, January 25, 2018

I wasn’t aware of this metaphorical clock that has existed for decades. Apparently, the Doomsday Clock is “a potent symbol of scientific concerns about humanity’s possible annihilation.” And, as the headline expresses, it’s now closer to midnight than it has been since the Cold War.

Why are these successful analogies? In each case, they help us to understand more complex, less graspable time concepts by comparing them to more graspable ones. Both cases draw attention to ways that longer time spans (evolutionary history or an individual’s life span or humanity’s existence) are analogous to shorter time spans (one year or one day — in both of the latter examples). For me, the first analogy was definitely informative — it improved my sense of the amount of time between the emergence of different life form. The second analogy I found intellectually satisfying (I actually put the book down and started reflecting on the fact that I don’t love evenings; I love mornings. And then realized that I’m 26 years old and maybe it’s not such a bad thing that I’m not on Team Evening yet). And the final one definitely conveyed a sense of urgency — there are a lot of scientific and political risks that we really need to get under control.

I like these analogies. I like that they helped me learn and to reflect, and that they were rebellious rule-breakers in the process.

Cover photo by Curtis MacNewton on Unsplash

If social unrest is like fire, how should we extinguish it?

We’ve seen a lot of social unrest in the past year, a grave fact we were reminded of recently by a deadly white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, VA and subsequent spinoff clashes around the country. How should we talk about these events when people gather in defense of their key beliefs, particularly when such protests devolve into chaos and jeopardize safety?

A recent paper by Christopher Hart points out that we often use fire metaphors to describe civil unrest. I searched for some fire-related words on Twitter, and sure enough, without including anything related to civil disorder in my searches, came up with commentaries related to social unrest:

Do fire metaphors shape the way we think about these instances of social unrest? Do they contribute to a perceived legitimacy of police using a water cannon in response to the unrest?

These are the questions Hart’s experiments set out to address. Participants experienced one of the following conditions:

  • #1: Description of a protest using literal language (like “Protests have overwhelmed the city…”), accompanied by a picture from the protest (like a person damaging a car)
  • #2: Same description as #1, accompanied by a picture from the protest in which fire was present (like someone burning a car)
  • #3: Same description as above, but the description used metaphorical language, comparing protests to fire (instead of “Protests have overwhelmed the city…” it said “Protests have engulfed the city…”). This description was accompanied by the same image is as Condition #1 (no fire in the image).

These conditions allowed the researcher to compare the impact of metaphorical language on beliefs about the protests to the impact of seeing the metaphorical language’s literal counterpart — actual fire — on beliefs. After exposure to one of these three fictional stories about a protest, participants indicated how logical and how justified they believed it was for police to use water canons at the protest.

As predicted, when people saw fires in the image (accompanying the literal description), they found it more logical and justified to use a water cannon at the protest than when the image did not show fire (but had the same description).

The metaphorical fire language did not encourage people to legitimize the use of a water cannon as the image of fire at a protest did. The researcher suspected it may be that the metaphorical language could not shape the way people thought about the protests when it was accompanied by a visual image in which fire was not present — information in the visual modality may have overruled any effects of the linguistic metaphor on how people thought about the situation.

To test this follow-up prediction, the next experiment used the same two text conditions (literal, as in the prior conditions #1 and #2; or metaphorical, as in condition #3), but had no accompanying images.

In the second experiment, people who read the text containing the fire metaphors were more likely to legitimize the use of a water cannon than those who read the text with the literal description. Even though there was nothing about literal fire in those descriptions, people felt that using a water cannon was seen as more legitimate as a result of fire-related metaphorical language.

Together, these experiments show that an image of fire included with information about a protest or metaphorical language that compares the protest to fire can encourage people to view the use of a water cannon as more logical and justified than the same information without fire images or metaphors.

This work is a great reminder that we need to mind our metaphors, even — or especially — when communicating about emotionally charged issues and current events.