Metaphors in mind

Posted by on April 11, 2011

Metaphorical English month continues with a guest post by James Geary, author of I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World as well as two books about aphorisms: The World in a Phrase and Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorist. James Geary discusses metaphor in this TED video and writes regularly on the topic on his blog. He tweets @JamesGeary.


From a scientific point of view, climate change and global warming are equally likely to be actually taking place. But that’s not the way self-identified Republicans see it. In a survey carried out at the University of Michigan, 60% of self-identified Republicans said they believed climate change was happening, but only 44% said the same about global warming. Around 86% of self-identified Democrats said they believed the environment was altering, regardless of how that process was described.

Crime is a plague on our cities, infecting communities with fear. Offenders lurk in our neighborhoods, preying on law-abiding citizens. Solutions to urban crime are independent of whether the issue is characterized as a virus (‘plague’, ‘infecting’) or a wild animal (‘lurk’, ‘preying’), right? Wrong. Asked to solve one city’s crime problem, participants in a Stanford University study tended to propose social reforms (eradicate poverty, improve education) when crime was described as a virus. But when crime was described as a wild animal, they tended to propose harsher enforcement policies (jail criminals, enact tougher laws). Both studies reveal the hidden power of metaphor to influence how we view the world.

Mention the word ‘metaphor’ and most of us think of our favorite line from Shakespeare or Keats. But metaphor is everywhere. We utter about six metaphors a minute. Metaphor infuses not just the way we speak but the way we think. The metaphors in these two studies provoke such different responses because they conjure up such different associations. ‘Climate change’ is far more neutral than ‘global warming’. After all, things change all the time. Why shouldn’t the climate? And who in their right mind would overhaul the educational system when threatened by a beast? The wild animal metaphor activates our instinct for fight or flight; the virus metaphor prompts us to inoculate ourselves by cleaning up our act.

Metaphors hide in plain sight, and their influence is largely unconscious. We should mind our metaphors, though, because metaphors make up our minds.

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Comments (4)
  • […] Dictionary Blog. Check out Stan Carey’s piece, Depending on metaphor, and my contribution, Metaphors in mind. Who knows what flowers may spring from April’s metaphorical […]

    Posted by Metaphorical English Month on the Macmillan Dictionary Blog > All Aphorisms, All the Time on 11th April, 2011
  • […] metaphorical English month over on the Macmillan Dictionary blog, and reading James Geary’s post Metaphors in Mind set me thinking about my own application of metaphors and how I use them to manipulate you, my dear […]

    Posted by Mind your Metaphors « Second Hand Shopper on 12th April, 2011
  • Good advice is: Mind your metaphors and watch your ps and qs, there’s perhaps no better advice for a young man (other than, don’t grow old too young), But at least the “mind your metaphors…” advice is demonstrably practical, although no one has ever bothered to say so to me, perhaps because nobody has thought up a good metaphor for it.

    Posted by Pat Flynn on 20th April, 2011
  • Terrific post! I followed the link and found those Stanford studies fascinating. Thank you! Metaphors make up our minds indeed. We need to be developing more ways to explore them in our classes.

    Posted by Vicki Hollett on 29th April, 2011
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