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Effect of Natural Language Metaphor on Human Reasoning

Dirk Meulenbelt
Universiteit Utrecht
Linguistic Modeling and Experimental Research 2015-2016
Hanna de Vries
Metaphors are ubiquitous in everyday speech and are often used to frame
problematic situations, such as in politics. Recent research by Thibodeau &
Boroditsky (2011, 2013, 2015) has studied whether metaphors can be used to
influence human reasoning about a crime problem. Though Thibodeau & Boroditsky
have found such effects, other researchers have not (Steen et al., 2014, Reijnierse et
al., 2015, van den Broek, 2015). The current study attempts to address three issues
with this recent chain of studies: a lack of consensus, a lack of generality, and a lack
of baseline. To do so, two baseline conditions are proposed to provide a baseline, and
a new kind of social problem is introduced to improve generality and consensus.
Addressing these issues will provide a way to improve the basis of the claim that
metaphors can be used to influence human reasoning.
Effect of Natural Language Metaphor on Reasoning
Metaphor is ubiquitous in natural language and makes up an estimated 10-
20% of discourse (Steen et al., 2014). Metaphors are often used to frame problematic
situations, ranging from politics, e.g. “the war on drugs”, to romance, e.g. “our
marriage is a sinking ship”. Metaphors map a source concept on a target concept,
carrying over meaning from one to the other (Van den Broek, 2015). In doing so, they
have the ability to structure, transform and create knowledge (Sopory & Dillard,
2002). Furthermore, if we are to take seriously the role of metaphor as a reflection of
thought, (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980), and consider that metaphors come with attendant
implications, it becomes reasonable to ponder the possibility that metaphors could
have a bottom-up effect on human reasoning. George Lakoff, among others, claims
that metaphors could serve as conceptual frames, and therefore serve to present
different views on political and other problems (Lakoff, 1996). Given the
omnipresence of metaphor in the framing of problems, and the scope of many of these
problems, it is worthwhile to study the extent to which such metaphors have the
capacity to influence human reasoning.
A recent chain of studies (Thibodeau & Boroditsky, 2011, 2013, 2015),
suggests that using distinct metaphors to frame social problems can indeed have a
particular effect on human reasoning. In three studies, Thibodeau & Boroditsky have
studied the effects of using particular metaphors to frame a fictional crime problem. In
their 2011 study, participants were shown two versions of a text describing the crime
problems in the make-believe city of Addison. In the first text, crime was
metaphorically framed as being a beast, whereas in the other condition crime was
framed as being a virus. The crime statistics of the city were the same for each
condition. The presented text read as follows: 1

Crime is a {beast/virus} ravaging the city of Addison. Five years ago Addison
was in good shape, with no obvious vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, in the past
five years the city’s defense systems have weakened, and the city has
succumbed to crime. Today, there are more than 55,000 criminal incidents a
year - up by more than 10,000 per year. There is a worry that if the city does not
regain its strength soon, even more serious problems may start to develop.
(Thibodeau & Boroditsky, 2011, p. 3)

Their results show that participants were more likely to propose solutions to the crime
problem that could be categorised as enforce, when they were exposed to the beast
metaphor, and more likely to propose solutions that could be categorised as reform
when they were presented with the virus metaphor. Solutions were proposed by
written text, and text-analysing was used to classify the submissions. Typical
enforcement strategies were, for example, the use of more policing or the increase of
prison sentences, contrasted with typical examples of reform, such as educational or
economic reform. The results were in line with expectations, as beasts and viruses
require analogous strategies in their concrete manifestations; malicious beasts need to
be fought and captured, whereas you should immunise yourself against viruses. In a
follow-up study, Thibodeau & Boroditsky (2013) repeated their 2011 study, but
required participants to choose from a list of response options, corresponding to either
enforce or reform, so as to eliminate ambiguity, and found similar results. In this 2013

1 This is the text presented in the second experiment done by Thibodeau & Boroditsky (2011), where the
crime problem is only framed once at the beginning of the text. The other experiments are not directly
relevant for this proposal and are therefore not considered.
study, they also asked people for consciousness of the metaphorical framing, and
people cited the crime statistics as constituting their beliefs and often did not even
remember the word that was used to frame the problem, leading Thibodeau &
Boroditsky (2013) to conclude that metaphoric framing has a covert effect on
reasoning. In their latest study (2015), Thibodeau, & Boroditsky repeated their study
once more, eliminating the option of “neighbourhood watch”, which was ambiguous
in the sense that it could be categorised as either enforce or reform. In this latest study,
they again found similar results. As such, the results from their three studies provide
support for the notion that metaphors can be used to influence human reasoning
bottom-up, in a way that is consistent with the metaphorical frame that is presented.
A group of other scientists (Steen, Reijnierse & Burgers 2014) were somewhat
sceptical, and attempted to replicate the Thibodeau & Boroditsky 2013 study with
some alterations. Their first concern was that the text presented by Thibodeau &
Boroditsky contained numerous supporting metaphors, which could be thought to
strengthen the beast or virus frame considerably, and thus confound the claim that a
single framing could steer people in one inferential direction over another. As can be
seen from the abovementioned crime report, the beast and virus metaphors are
followed by “in good shape”, “defence systems have weakened”, and so forth. Steen
et al., therefore presented a condition in which both the beast and virus metaphors
were presented without metaphorical support, using literal language only. Their
second concern involved a lack of baseline in the studies done by Thibodeau &
Boroditsky. As Thibodeau & Boroditsky themselves note (2015), it is unclear how the
metaphors are influencing reasoning relative to what their reasoning would have been
without metaphorical framing. Perhaps one metaphor is doing all the work, instead of
both? Also, it is possible that both beast and virus metaphors are an enticement of the
enforce strategy, where beast simply has a stronger effect in that direction. By the
same token, it’s possible that both metaphors steer in the reform direction with virus
simply inducing the stronger effect. Steen et al. have addressed these issues in two
ways: firstly, in two experiments, they have tried to gauge baseline preference by
measuring the propensity of participants to elect either enforce or reform strategies
before exposure to the manipulation. Additionally, they have included a version of the
crime report in which crime was framed as being a problem, as a way to portray the
crime problem in a neutral way—without a metaphorical frame. Their research ended
up consisting of a 3x2 design, where both the non-metaphorical-support text and the
metaphorical-support-text were presented in the beast, virus and problem conditions.
In contrast to the results of Thibodeau & Boroditsky (2011, 2013, 2015), Steen et al.
found no significant effects in any of their conditions, including their condition
involving an exact replica of Thibodeau’s & Boroditsky’s successful manipulation. In
another, later study, Reijnierse, Burgers, Krennmayr & Steen (2015) attempted to
swing the other way their hypothesis that extended metaphors increase effect, by
increasing the amount of metaphors supporting “crime is a beast” and “crime is a
virus”. They found little to no support for their hypothesis, which once again fails to
produce results similar to Thibodeau & Boroditsky.
Van den Broek (2015) has, for her master’s thesis, also attempted to replicate
the studies done by Thibodeau & Boroditsky, and found no effect, but did find an
effect on the same manipulation using visual instead of verbal metaphors, which are
beyond the scope of the current article but do suggest an effect of metaphor on
reasoning nonetheless.
In conclusion, the current set of studies fails to provide a strong basis for the
claim that the use of metaphorical framing can influence human reasoning bottom-up,
as some scientists do, but others do not find this effect. Three major problems can be
identified in this recent series of inquiry on metaphorical framing.
Firstly, there is a subsisting lack of a proper baseline, despite the efforts of
Steen et al., (2014). Two problems with their proposed baseline can be distinguished.
The first problem is that even though participants were tested on policy preference in
a pre-test, this pre-test was followed by the experimental condition, which may
confound results, for people could be committed to their initial response (Thibodeau
& Boroditsky, 2015). The second issue is that the word problem may be similar to
either virus or beast in its framing of the crime problem. If we were to find a similar
results of, for example, beast and problem, then it would be unclear whether both
were ineffective, or both were effective, or only problem was effective, or only beast
was effective. Likewise, the same could occur for problem in conjunction with virus.
Additionally, given the complexity of linguistic stimuli, problem differs from virus or
beast in myriad other ways such as conventionality and severity (Thibodeau &
Boroditsky, 2015). Framing crime as a problem will therefore not necessarily provide
a neutral stimulus, but simply a different stimulus (Thibodeau & Boroditsky, 2015).
Secondly, there is a lack of consensus: where Thibodeau & Boroditsky
consistently find significant results, others consistently do not.
The third problem is that such wild conclusions as “it is clear that
metaphorical framing influences reasoning in social problems” is perhaps a bit
premature given the restriction to variations of a single text. As such, there is an issue
with generality. Even though the crime report has been altered in various ways in
various experiments, these alterations were minor and the text has been roughly the
same for all conditions in the aforementioned experiments.
The present study attempts to address each of these problems to properly
answer the question of whether metaphors can influence human reasoning. To capture
a veridical baseline, two distinct yet complementary measures will be instantiated.
Firstly, a pre-test similar to Steen et al. (2014) will be ran. However, this time there
will be no subsequent manipulation and the pre-test will function as a poll to measure
a general propensity for either reform or enforce strategies. This poll can then serve as
a baseline for all conditions, without risking carry-over effects. Secondly, a version of
the text without either the beast or virus metaphor shall be presented, such that the
first line reads “Crime is ravaging the city of Addison.” Thibodeau & Boroditsky
(2015) have explicitly stated that given the complexity of linguistic stimuli, leaving
out the metaphorical frame could not serve as a proper baseline for it would, in the
same way as problem, be a different rather than neutral stimulus. There are a couple of
reasons to be sceptical about their assertion. If the complexity of linguistic stimuli
makes for such a massive change in effect that leaving beast/virus out in favour of
“Crime is ravaging the city of Addison” then the claim that you can frame crime
problems is dubious at best, as such a claim can only be made with exact
consideration of every single word in the crime report. If indeed words have such
major side-effects, then how come there has been no effect in any of the (extended)
metaphorical support conditions in the crime report? Surely these side-effects should
have beguiled the participants one way or the other in at least one condition; if they
haven’t skewed results, they are not problematic. Additionally, presenting the
beast/virus metaphors at the end of the text produced no significant effect, suggesting
furthermore that leaving out the metaphorical framing word in the first sentence could
function as a proper baseline. But, most importantly, considering we now have a poll
to function as a baseline as well, we could compare results between the two
conditions, which, if they are the same, allows us not only to instantiate baselines in
further research by leaving out the metaphorical frame, but allows us moreover to
identify the single metaphorical frame as the primum mobile.
To address the issues of both lacking consensus and lacking generality, a
distinct set of manipulative text shall be composed and presented in a second
experiment in order to improve our ability to answer the question of whether
metaphors influence reasoning bottom-up. Because such manipulative texts need not
necessarily involve political issues and can, for example, pertain to everyday personal
problems such as romantic doubts, financial worries, and so forth. Therefore, the
present study will involve a second experiment with a text pertaining to marital
problems, where the problematic marriage is either framed as worn out, or broken.
Conjectured is that the worn out condition is consistent with a divorce, as when
something is worn out, it’s over: you throw it away. Likewise, when something is
broken, you repair it, which is consistent with marital counselling and mediation. In
view of the difficulty of coming up with an apt manipulative text that is analogous to
the crime situation in the relevant ways, this text may change considerably after
continued deliberation. Including this and similar texts improves our ability to answer
whether we can indeed influence reasoning with metaphors in general.
The main hypothesis is that metaphorical framing conditions will significantly
differ from baseline conditions in a way that is consistent with the frame of the
metaphor presented. It is expected that in the first experiment, the poll and no-
framing conditions will produce similar results, and can henceforth function as a
baseline. Furthermore, an increased propensity to either enforce or reform is expected
of the beast and virus metaphors, respectively, compared to each other and baseline.
However, considering the lack of consensus, this hypothesis is not profound.
Hypotheses for the second experiment are analogous to the first experiment.

Experiment 1
Participants will be selected in such a way that the resulting sample mirrors
those of previous studies: 250+ per condition, in an appropriate age range (18+), with
English as their first language, and residence in the US. The present study will also
require a performance rating on Mechanical Turk of at least 90%, and lastly
participants shall be filtered on the speed of their response, for an answer too quick
could physically not have been influenced by the manipulation, and a response too
slow could be subject to a diminished effect of the manipulation. This will be done in
the same way as Thibodeau & Boroditsky, where the lower limit is 10 seconds and the
upper limit is 300 seconds (2015).

Materials, Design & Procedure

Participants were randomly assigned to four conditions. In the first three
conditions, crime is framed as a beast ravaging a city, a virus ravaging the city, or
simply “Crime is ravaging the city”. This shall be done using the text from Thibodeau
& Boroditsky (2011,2013,2015) which can be found in the introduction of this
proposal. After having read the crime report, the participants are supplied with a few
options, pulled from Thibodaeu & Boroditsky (2015):

1. Increase street patrols that look for criminals.

2. Increase prison sentences for convicted offenders.
3. Reform education practices and create after school programs.
4. Expand economic welfare programs and create jobs.
5. Develop neighborhood watch programs and do more community outreach.
(p. 2)

The last neighbourhood question about the neighbourhood watch will be left in as
Thibodeau & Boroditsky (2015) have already shown this not to matter. The fourth
condition involved no crime report, and participants will only be given the above
options to answer the question: “Which response option against crime do you prefer
most?” In a questionnaire, participants shall also be asked for their age, sex,
educational background, first language, geographic location and political affiliation,
in accordance with Thibodeau & Boroditsky (2015). Also, response time will be
measured, again in accordance with Thibodeau & Boroditsky (2015).

Experiment 2
Participants in experiment 2 will be selected in the exact same way as in
experiment 1.

Materials, Design & Procedure

Participants are, as in experiment 1, randomly assigned to four conditions.
Only this time a marriage problem is framed instead of a crime problem. In the first
three conditions, a particular marriage is framed as worn out, broken, or not framed,
where “John and Suzy’s marriage is making both John and Suzy unhappy” makes up
the first sentence. The text is as follows:

John and Suzy’s marriage (is worn out/broken and) is making both John and
Suzy unhappy. Five years ago, their marriage was in very good shape. However,
in the last few years, more and more incidents have taken place, and they
currently find themselves in conflict on almost a daily basis. Neither John nor
Suzy feels they can live with the current situation for much longer.

After participants read the text they will be asked what John and Suzy will have to do
to address their marriage problems and are given the following two options (subject to

1. Divorce
2. Marital counselling

The fourth condition will simply involve on the two options, preceded by the question
“Which option do you generally prefer?” This question is intentionally kept vague to
avoid framing the marriage problem. Response time measurement and a personal
information survey will be the same as in experiment 1.

Both experiments shall be analysed in the same manner. A between-subjects
ANOVA will be used to compare all conditions, combined with Tukey’s test of
significance, to see how the conditions differ from each other. Additionally, an effect
of political affiliation (or other characteristics) on results may be tested, after which, if
such an effect is found, an ANCOVA may be used to control for it.
The current study ventures to answer the question of whether bottom-up
metaphorical framing can influence human reasoning about (social) problems. To do
so, it builds on previous research and attempts to amend the previous studies so as to
address the three major issues that have been raised. If the results turn out as
predicted, then this supports the conclusions already made by Thibodeau &
Boroditsky in their studies. It will provide support the conclusion in a more general
sense—if indeed the second experiment finds its hypothesised effect. The current
study also provides for us a way to supply future research with a veridical baseline.
This baseline allows us to identify more precisely the workings of the metaphorical
framing. For in the present study we shall not run into the problems that I have
outlined in the introduction, which is that we were previously unable to exactly
determine which metaphor is doing what exactly. There are a variety of ways for the
current study to find results that don’t agree with the hypotheses, some of which are
very plausible—given the previous lack of consensus. These results shall be discussed
in due course.
A side note can be made on the time-frame of the manipulation done in the
present experiment. Participants are presented with a text and are expected to respond
to the questions within the time-frame of five minutes. It would be interesting to find
out whether a supposed effect of metaphor on human reasoning persists longer than
this. As such, an experiment may be conducted that presents participants with a
manipulative text, and asks them for their preferential solution not within minutes but
a longer time-frame—the length of which is very much up for debate.
A second side note can be made on the second experiment. Given the
complexity of linguistic stimuli, and the nature of empirical linguistic research, it is
very difficult to compose adequate manipulative texts that lend itself to this type of
research. Therefore, I propose a call to arms: more texts in the tradition the crime-
report and the marital sorrows ought to be created, to provide further evidence for the
generality of the main conclusion.
A third side note again addresses the second experiment. Framing a marriage
as worn out or broken may present a more specific judgment of condition on the
marriage than beast or virus does on crime. A possibility is to also frame the marriage
as either a beast or a virus, so as to further demarcate the effect of these metaphors.
For if indeed they work in a text not about crime, then this provides additional
evidence to isolate this metaphorical framing as the prime mover.

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