Want to Change Minds? Frame Your Message with Metaphor

7 min read

Among a cadre of healthcare researchers, a debate persists over whether you should call a cancer patient’s efforts to cope with treatment a “battle” or a “journey.” Which do you think is better?

One experiment by Rose Hendricks and others at the University of California, San Diego, found that “battle” is more likely to get patients to feel guilty if they don’t recover. “Journey,” meanwhile, gets them to feel they can make peace with their illness. [i]

You probably have a strong opinion of what’s best. But the point of bringing this up is to show how metaphors sculpt thought. We live our lives not just—or even mainly—by using facts to shape our opinions. We rely on frames. We are slaves to frames.

“Framing the Landscape” by Mick Garratt CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED

Source: “Framing the Landscape” by Mick Garratt CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED

Metaphorical frames, like frames made of wood, sharpen one view and exclude others. They provide guardrails to channel logic, nudging people’s reasoning one way or another. They encourage a kind of tunnel vision, in which people see only the single image—or message—alight at the end.

Literal Framing Power

Literal words also work as frames. Psychologist and Nobelist Daniel Kahneman showed, for example, how characterizing an outcome as a “gain” versus a “loss” sways not only people’s opinions but can reverse them. [ii] That’s true even when the facts are exactly the same

We fall under the spell of a well-expressed frame. We do so in part because we take the easy way out. Who wants to go to the extra effort to question a frame and establish a new one? We instead follow the tunnel that seems to most quickly light the way to understanding.

A recent example comes from Oscar Hengxuan Chi and others at Washington State University. They investigated the willingness of people to purchase carbon offsets to counter the carbon released during their vacations. Do people, after reading a briefing on the facts of climate change, form different views if asked their opinion in a positive fashion versus negative?

Some of the people in the experiment were told, “If you choose to offset your carbon emissions, you will be removing carbon from the atmosphere and helping to preserve our environment.” Others were told, “If you do not offset your carbon emissions, you will not be removing…” and so on.

What effect did this seemingly transparent flipflop have? The people in the group getting the positive message were more likely to say they would buy the offsets. They also said they would spend more money to do so. [iii]The frame alone, not the accompanying list of facts, prejudiced them.

Metaphorical Superpower

If frames built of literal words can have that much impact, how much more can frames built of metaphorical ones have? I covered the factors that make metaphors powerful in my last post. In this post, you’ll see just how surely those factors—associations with emotions, social connections, narrative cues, and more—give metaphors an outsized influence.

In a study by Erin Conrad and others at the University of Pennsylvania, 3,727 participants read vignettes of people taking drugs for “cognitive enhancement.” Participants who got the vignette that framed the enhancement pills as “fuel” found the practice generally acceptable when assessing its suitability for other people. The reverse was true for participants who got the vignette framing the pills as a “steroid.”

Conrad and her colleagues also asked people under the influence of frames built of literal words to assess the suitability of the practice. One vignette said the pills helped “maximize our fullest potential.” Note how the wording mimics the “fuel” metaphor. The other said the pills help to “minimize the effort needed to perform.” Note how this mimics the meaning of “steroid.”

The result underlined the mightiness of metaphor. The literal frames had no differing effect. It was the meaning associated with the metaphorical ones—stemming from the mental cargo connected with “fuel” and “steroid” in the brain—that accounted for all the framing difference. Literal frames in this case produced a draw. (Interestingly, in no case did the difference in framing influence people’s support for taking the pills themselves.) [iv]

Metaphors for Growth

Szu-Chi Huang and Jennifer Aaker at the Stanford Graduate School of Business investigated an entirely different kind of metaphor. They wanted to know how framing would influence people’s motivation. Would people striving to achieve a goal be motivated after achieving the goal based on whether their efforts were framed as contributing to a “journey” or a “destination”?

Sixteen hundred people in six experiments participated. Among them were students studying at Stanford, African executives completing a business education program, dieters in a seven-day food diary program, and exercisers in a 14-day walking program

How mighty do you think the frame was? Across the groups, the people guided by the “journey” frame were more motivated to keep up their goal-related behavior afterward. The frame, according to their comments, got them focused on their future growth. The people guided by the “destination” frame, in contrast, focused on winning just in the moment. [v]

Again, the metaphor—in this case focusing people on process versus outcome—channeled them into feeling motivated to engage in one kind of behavior versus the other. Can you imagine the power of that frame over a lifetime of striving?

In a third experiment, Ana Chkhaidze and others at the University of California San Diego asked 765 people to read a single paragraph. It was about how immigrant labor was changing the economy in a fictional town called Addison. Among four versions of the paragraph, one referred to the immigrant flow as a “boost,” another as an “invasion.” The rest of the paragraph was identical, and it described economic growth in Addison as robust.

Chkhaidze and her team then measured people’s inferences about Addison’s economy. They asked people to first score the economic impact on Addison—from 1, very negative, to 10, very positive. The people who got the “invasion” frame gave much lower ratings. This was true even when they could not remember which word was used to frame their paragraph.

The big surprise was the heft of the impact. The scoring disparity was as big as the difference between pre-existing opinions on immigration in a group of mixed political affiliations. People’s accompanying narrative answers didn’t diverge as much based on the frame. Still, the difference was significant. Again, this was in spite of the narratives being—verbatim—the same. [vi]

Frames First, Facts Second

That metaphors can easily squeeze people’s views into a tunnel can be good. That allows you to focus your readers’ or listeners’ understanding more effectively. It can also be bad, however, if you manipulate the context to distort the genuine meaning that stems from the facts. Misunderstandings—if not misinformation—are risks.

Risks aside, though, metaphors have unrivaled power in communicating ideas. Readers ride the coattails of metaphor to your preferred logical destination. One caution: Don’t think that defaulting to cliché metaphors like “war” will do the job. You need to weigh the metaphor’s aptness, and most writers grasping for a handy metaphor do not. [vii]

Everyone has that tendency. Why not use a stock metaphor that pops easily into the brain? The reason to think twice is that going with unapt metaphors—which often spring to mind without reflection—often fails to clarify and instead confuses.

Say you’re caring for the well-being of others, whether your charge is in the throes of cancer or anything else. Do you want to invoke guilt or peace? Do you want them to view a pill as fueling or drugging their bodies? Do you want them to see their efforts as a journey or destination?

Most people, intellectuals or not, skip the facts mounded up in their presence. They take the express lane through the mound provided by a metaphorical tunnel. Needless to say, if you’re the one who builds that tunnel, it’s your responsibility to make sure it spills onto a real, not fictional, landscape.

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