“When you talk about crime as a ‘beast,’ or when you talk about it as a ‘virus’ [it] leads people to really different assumptions about what should be done about crime.”
In Washington D.C., there’s a think tank that designs new metaphors, with the aim of making us think differently about the world’s problems. We speak with writers and cognitive scientists who specialize in hacking language to change minds.
- Michael Erard, author and journalist
- Catasha Davis, communications scientist and researcher at the Frameworks Institute
- Rose Hendricks, cognitive scientist and researcher at the Frameworks Institute
Some additional information and resources not directly linked to within the transcript (below):
- Michael Erard wrote this essay for Aeon about his time working at the Frameworks Institute, and it includes more about the “paintbrush is a kind of pump” study we mention:
“Metaphor designers create these pseudo-mistakes deliberately. Sometimes the metaphors end up in op-eds or public-service announcements. Sometimes they’re useful for helping people conceive of solutions to problems, or for internal communications in organisations. The challenge for the designer is to generate lots of pseudo-mistakes, some of which can be used for thinking and that have the power to stick around.”
- Ed Yong writes in more detail for Discover about the study that found opinions of crime change depending on whether it’s described as “a beast” or “a virus”.
- Rose Hendricks has laid out some more examples of the power of metaphor on her site…
- …while she also has an Etsy store where she sells adorable greeting cards and crocheted products.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: I’m Chiquita Paschal.
IAN STEADMAN: And I’m Ian Steadman.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: And we’re on a journey to figure out what happens when new ideas take hold, and how they change the ways we think and act.
IAN STEADMAN: This show is all about answering one specific question. If ideas can change the world, where do world-changing ideas actually come from?
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Inspiration to change the world can come from any and everywhere. It can come from scientists, social media, news, books, movies, even from friends and family. Sometimes ideas catch on by accidents and serendipity, but even propaganda can seem innocent at first. Sometimes the line between persuasion and manipulation is uncomfortably thin, so it’s up to us to discern if we can trust those ideas, or not.
IAN STEADMAN: But how does an idea get from out in the world to inside your head, or your heart, or your gut? Well, the methods, whether intentional or unintentional, malicious or benign, they’re almost endless. Sometimes it can be as simple as a simple turn of phrase that just grabs you and it won’t let you go.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: So let’s start there. Welcome to This Will Change Your Mind.
IAN STEADMAN: A show all about how other people change how you think about the world.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: On today’s episode, we’re digging into just how much metaphors frame our understanding of abstract concepts or really concrete existential consequences. We’re all using metaphor to communicate all the time, even without realising it.
IAN STEADMAN: We can start with one metaphor today. A paintbrush is a kind of pump.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: A paintbrush being a pump.
IAN STEADMAN: Which is completely nonsensical, right?
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Yep.
IAN STEADMAN: But metaphors are really useful tools, because language, words, these are the building blocks that allow us to interpret and understand the world, and a metaphor puts these blocks together in a way that they’re not meant to go, and it changes how you think. This is an actual metaphor which, in a very small way, did change the world. It was back in the 1960s, and a company that made paintbrushes set up a focus group to test a new paintbrush. The white coats with the clipboards were standing around asking people who were painting things with these paintbrushes how it felt, and one of the respondents mentioned off-hand that, if you think about it, a paintbrush is a kind of pump. And it’s not…
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: …but it was still useful because a paintbrush is a pump changed how designers actually thought about their brush. They redesigned the bristles so that they would move the paint around in a different way.
IAN STEADMAN: It’s an off-the-cuff metaphorical refiguration of how you think about what the paintbrush does to move paint around, and we came across this example of a metaphor ever so slightly changing the world because of one guy.
MICHAEL ERARD: My name is Michael Erard and I’m a linguist, I’m a writer, and I’m a researcher, and you’re talking to me because I called myself a metaphor designer.
IAN STEADMAN: Yeah, you heard that right. He said a metaphor designer. Michael used to work for a think tank in Washington D.C. called the Frameworks Institute, who specialize in using techniques like inventing new metaphors to change how people think about the world. And once we found out that not only was metaphor designer a job title that someone could have, but that there was an entire organisation dedicated to coming up with metaphors, well, we just had to find out what that meant.
I’m really curious, how do you get mixed up in this kind of business?
MICHAEL ERARD: No, it was entirely happenstance in the way that all the best jobs, you know, come about in our lives. You know, it definitely helped that I was raised as a Roman Catholic, where things are always themselves but always something else. These homologies that are drawn between the blood and the wine, the sacrifice and the sheep. So things take on the traits of other things without losing their own essences. I grew up thinking that way, and having that throughout a Catholic education, having all of those kinds of connections mapped out for me, so, given the opportunity to do that with other topics, it came very easily.
IAN STEADMAN: I’m so interested in the day-to-day life of this job. How would you come up with a metaphor? Would you sit at a desk and stare into space until you have a flash of inspiration, or did someone come to you with a project and say, “We need to work with this organization on this,” for example? What was the actual, like, day-to-day look like?
MICHAEL ERARD: There was an office in D.C. but whenever I met up with people it was out in the field when we were doing research testing the metaphors. So frankly, the day-to-day was as unsexy as it could possibly be. There was a lot of time spent quoting video. So we would take the candidate metaphors that a team of people had participated in creating, and take them out and just do person on the street interviews, random intercept interviews, where you’d ask people questions about climate change and you’d find out where they were at the baseline, and then you’d give them the metaphor, and then you’d ask them afterwards some questions that were very similar but not exactly the same ones as before and see how their talking had changed.
There’s one domain that worked extremely well, and for a lot of different topics, which is the notion of architecture, and Frameworks is, if you ever read about brain architecture, that’s a Frameworks metaphor, particularly in the realm of early childhood development, so talking about how the architecture of the developing brain grows, and giving parents and caregivers specific kinds of advice about how to build the brain architecture. You know, architecture is perfect because it’s both structure, getting people to think beyond an individual instance or their own individual case or perception or experience, the structure is really, really good, but also an architecture is not a specific building, type of building. Is it a house? Is it a gas station? Is it a skyscraper? It’s a general category of things that are built.
And that’s the other important part of it, that people have a role in building this thing. So, I often talk about the climate as an architecture, that humans have a role and have always played a role in maintaining the stability of, and one way to talk about climate change is the disruption of the climate architecture, that the walls and the rooms are not where we expect them to be and they’re actually moving in ways that are destabilizing the entire structure.
IAN STEADMAN: It’s a collapsing house, yeah.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Terrifying.
MICHAEL ERARD: Yeah.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Yes.
IAN STEADMAN: That makes total sense.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Great. We have so many new ways to describe our internal terror.
IAN STEADMAN: This is really fascinating on an individual level, or even on a group level. Do you think that this has limitations when it comes to changing things at the systemic level? What’s the limit of this kind of shape-shifting of language?
MICHAEL ERARD: So, one of the limits there is that there are things that are just, kind of, way too complex for us to try to simplify, or they’re too complex for the kinds of communication biases that we have. You know, if you’re trying to come up with a metaphor you’re already trying to do something quickly and in a single hit, you’re not taking a long approach about what you’re going to strategically layer in the public conversation over a decade or several decades. And even, how can you do that, because the media environment is changing so much that whatever you had planned to be your information vehicle in ten years is going to be totally obsolete.
IAN STEADMAN: Yeah. That’s the kind of control over messaging that you really only get I guess in, like, an authoritarian state where you have, kind of, centralized propaganda and stuff.
MICHAEL ERARD: Yeah.
IAN STEADMAN: Which I guess speaks to something of a sinister side of all this, which is it’s a tool that can be used for good, but it feels like a tool that could also be used for nefarious ends as well.
MICHAEL ERARD: Another limit, certainly, is the ways in which people become sensitive to language that looks like it’s been engineered. There’s a metaphor lab in Amsterdam and one of their projects is on metaphor resistance, and I’ve certainly recently had people, you know, when I give them metaphors, they kind of have a reaction like, “That sounds too, that’s too nice a way to put it.”
Basically we want, I think, to draw from people’s own cognitive traditions, or offer things that are really from people’s own culture groups, but which they might not have ever considered using in a particular way. So that’s one way around that.
IAN STEADMAN: This sounds good and great and everything, but I still have this, like, part of me in my stomach which is, and listen to me, relying on metaphor, which is a little uneasy about how sophisticated this is.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Yes.
IAN STEADMAN: What would you say to someone who was worried about being manipulated or otherwise unconsciously having their opinions shaped by this kind of work?
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: And kind of an invisible unseen hand?
IAN STEADMAN: Metaphors again.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Oh, man.
IAN STEADMAN: Yeah.
MICHAEL ERARD: You know, for the work that I’ve done, I can speak to the work that I’ve done, right? I’m not going to defend propagandists.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Fair, totally fair.
MICHAEL ERARD: You know, but we live in a complex, technically-oriented society, and there is a lot going on that never surfaces that would help people understand their world, help people make decisions, help people accept their fate, you know, and help them participate in the political process and encourage them to do that, which I think is super essential. These messaging projects have been a way of cutting the core out of some of that complexity and pulling that up and showing it to people and making it usable, in a way that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to do.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: So at this point we had to reach out to the Frameworks Institute and find out what they’re up to nowadays. We spoke with two of their current employees. The first was Catasha Davis.
CATASHA DAVIS: I’m Catasha. I’m a researcher here at Frameworks thinking about things like how people might use media to reduce prejudice.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: And the second was Rose Hendrix.
ROSE HENDRICKS: I’m Rose Hendrix, and I’m a cognitive scientist focused on how language and metaphor shapes our thinking and our perceptions and understandings of the world.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: And it turns out that framing is way more than just metaphor.
CATASHA DAVIS: What we do is, we try to map the gaps between how experts think about an issue and how the public thinks about an issue. It involves a number of steps.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Yeah, it sounds so, it sounds like, I’m just imagining like in some movie where there’s little billowing fan things and, like, smoke.
ROSE HENDRICKS: Well, if there’s any fans and smoke, they’re probably coming out of our brains. So most of this is sort of just through interviews with members of the public and that can be, you know, digital, we often travel across the country to speak, or the world actually, to speak with people in different places and then come back and try to put all of that together.
CATASHA DAVIS: Yeah.
ROSE HENDRICKS: To understand the thinking and to figure out how to better communicate.
CATASHA DAVIS: Yes. All the researchers at Frameworks, we’re all multidisciplinary, right, so we bring in stuff that we know from history, from the humanities. So, for example, I have a background in African-American Studies, right, so if we’re doing projects related to things that have to do with race or socioeconomic status, we not only quantify it but we can bring our background in those areas to piece together what is happening when people hear a metaphor.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Yeah, that is a lot of sense for the big picture. And I guess I’m just thinking about, like, you know, there’s so many different ways that we’re engaging with these metaphors. You know, there’s the ways that we consume media, and hear about policies and things that are happening, but then there’s also the kind of work like what you’re doing with women’s health or with minority health, and that seems like on a much more peer-to-peer, person-to-person level.
CATASHA DAVIS: So sometimes we use metaphors. Like a lot of the time, right? But other times we also employ other kinds of tools, like explanatory chains, where we explain a process, like step-by-step. In every project we use different things. Like sometimes we talk about values, right, so the value of fairness or equal opportunity may be a better way to communicate as opposed to a metaphor. So sometimes a metaphor’s not always appropriate for some of the work that we’re doing, like when you were saying women’s health, or people of color.
In thinking about, you know, clinical trials, we think about what people value, right, in terms of their health or one of their loved ones, where we might not use a metaphor in that case to try to explain why this is an important thing for people to participate in but instead explain the process in a more effective way. And so there’s just a bit of difference between the language that we’re using to, you know, like explain the importance or significance of an issue like why you should join an Alzheimer’s trial.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: I was thinking about this almost on a personal level. I’m black, and my grandma is also black. Unsurprisingly. But a couple, about a year and a half ago, she was diagnosed with lung cancer, but at the time she didn’t really have a whole, framework, frankly, to understand what the conversations around her healthcare and the actions and steps that she needed to do. It seems that that might be a systemic issue, right, because her generation, sort of her level of education, and in general her access and ability to be able to advocate for her own health, and that really struck me as, like, a communication issue at the bottom of that.
CATASHA DAVIS: Yeah, I think that you’re spot on to say that it is a structural issue in communicating. I think there are two communication issues particularly among black communities across the diaspora. One is that there’s like a terrible history of medicine in those communities, right, and so communicating about how the medical industry has changed, and how those things, having review boards and that kind of thing, is not communicated to people effectively.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Oh yeah, my grandma was like, “The Tuskegee experiments, it’s going to be that,” and it was a very real and present trauma that she was experiencing,
CATASHA DAVIS: Right, right, so part of it is communicating that, you know, those things do not happen anymore, right? And then the other part is that, because those things are happening, I think in the clinical field, there is this idea that like, “Oh, people of color will not participate, and therefore we don’t know how to communicate with them,” and that is actually in fact not true, like, there’s research that suggests that when given the right information, right? So then this is just an explanatory chain, right? When given the right information, people of color are just as likely to participate.
OK, so that’s another part of that structural problem of people not being able to communicate effectively with the needs of particular communities, and I think sort of, like, the third part of that is again, structural. If people of color do not get into clinical trials, they’re missing out on the best medicine. Clinical trials are forefront of medicine and so, if you’re not communicating effectively that that is the case, then those health disparities, health inequalities, actually get worse.
And so we have started to do some of this work here at Frameworks, but there is a recognition that, like, we need to communicate more effectively about how clinical trials actually work, like really breaking down the process for people, in simple plain language, not using complicated medical terms, and that is just as important as using an effective metaphor.
IAN STEADMAN: What do you think the limitations are of this kind of work though? What else do you have to augment it with to make change happen? Is there a certain point at which you can only do so much and you actually have to start combining this with other kinds of, I guess, activist, or campaigning, or policy planning kind of work?
ROSE HENDRICKS: I think you’re kind of putting your finger on a general limitation of most or all research, which is that it needs to get into the right hands afterwards. So at Frameworks we actually do take one next step in order to do that, and that’s that we have a team that focuses on application, so they go and they teach the results of the research to messengers, to organisations. So that’s one way, is making sure that people who can communicate, you know, have a platform to do so, know how to use the recommendations.
But then the next one is to, like you also alluded to, to engage in campaigns, so, to make sure that there’s a concerted, consistent effort to get this work out, to get the communications aligned and more powerful and, you know, there are lots of other organizations that actually specialize in dissemination strategies and using mass media and social media and different messengers and trusted messengers, but it’s kind of like a many-pronged approach, I think, to getting the research to make its true social impact.
And then the other important thing is making sure that it can reach policymakers. So, some of our research, most of it focuses on communicating to members of the public so that they will understand things differently and support changes in policies, but there’s a separate issue of how you, sort of, get these frames into policy maker, I guess, to be integrated into their decision making, but that’s also part of the solution, of course. We can’t just share only with the public because the public doesn’t necessarily make the laws themselves.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: You two are both such, like, skilled expert communicators and just even in the course of talking to you I’ve heard you just kind of make up metaphors on the fly and it’s very beautiful. What’s your favorite metaphor? What are your favorite metaphors personally, like, do you have go to ones that you find yourself using a lot?
ROSE HENDRICKS: Oh goodness, that is a great question.
CATASHA DAVIS: I think my mind went blank as she said it.
ROSE HENDRICKS: Yeah.
CATASHA DAVIS: Well, one that we just, like, published that I actually really love is that we have a metaphor about sailing in Australia and I love it because parenting is like sailing on the water, and of course Australians have, like, such a close relationship with, especially living on the coast, right, with water.
Such a well-done metaphor because it talks about, you know, when you’re sailing there’s all these things that can come out, storms, sharks, right, that can come that can make parenting more difficult, but if we give parents safe harbors and lighthouses then we can make things easier. In testing it now, since it’s out, you know, people really worked with that metaphor and they, like, added things to it like, “Oh yes, you could have lifejackets, and crew,” and so it was really gratifying now to see that it’s out, because part of this was like the Australian government wants to help people, to help them parent more effectively, right, and so I think seeing that one go through the whole research process and now being out has been quite gratifying, so I like it a lot.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: I have other questions now about what led to Australia needing to have a metaphor campaign for parenting, but that’s probably a whole other conversation.
ROSE HENDRICKS: One of my favorite metaphors, I guess, is actually, interestingly, it’s based on a study and it’s the study that got me hooked on learning about metaphors, and so that is work that was done by Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky. They had this super clean series of experiments that showed when you talk about crime as a beast, or when you talk about it as a virus, you can use all the same statistics and all the same information, but it’s just, you know, crime is a beast ravaging the city or crime is a virus infecting the city, I think it was, leads people to really different assumptions about what should be done about the crime.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Oh wow.
ROSE HENDRICKS: They take on these assumptions that you really should engage in punitive solutions, just like you would capture and jail a beast, you should find the source of whoever the beasts are and jail them and punish them. In the virus case there’s a lot more of an understanding of like, “We need to get to the root causes here and stop it from spreading and treat those causes,” which is of course a much more progressive and systemic solution there.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Healing, even.
ROSE HENDRICKS: Exactly. And all they did was show people a couple sentences to get these differences in, you know, their assumptions about what should be done. So, in a way, that’s obviously one of my favorite metaphors even though I don’t exactly talk about crime that often because it just illustrates so beautifully, you know, the power of metaphor and why it’s so important for us to understand how it works in our brains and our minds and then the assumptions and behaviors they give rise to.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: It just, it permeates your entire being and you can’t stop thinking about it and all of a sudden you’re just like, “Am I just a walking metaphor? How deep does this go?”
IAN STEADMAN: Oh no, that’s the philosophy student coming back out there.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Oh no.
IAN STEADMAN: Resist.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Alright. I always thought that I only had metaphors in this toolbox of, like, trying to figure out how to explain really abstract stuff to people, but now, after talking to these people from the Frameworks Institute, there are so many other ways that not only we can try to change other people’s minds, but that other people have changed our minds, and, what?
IAN STEADMAN: Yeah, and the examples that they gave were really frightening to me. The fact that you can change something as fundamental as someone’s attitude towards law and order based on a metaphor, that’s a wild thing to me. That’s just such a terrifying and wild thing to me.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: And I’m sure there are tons of other examples where, you know, we’re trying to help a message and are inadvertently framing it in a way that is destructive.
IAN STEADMAN: We’re both journalists, so we’re used to the idea that the language we use has a power to it, and we have to use that power responsibly. But I’m sure that for everyone, the thought that you can have such an impact on the world through such small tweaks of language, that’s a very powerful thing.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: I mean, really, aren’t we talking about trying to change our own minds about stuff that we know we need to do better on? What are the ways that our bias maybe actually frames us? Plot twist.
IAN STEADMAN: Yeah, that’s the thing. All of us, we have these biases, we have these inclinations and these ways of framing the world around us, and a lot of the time, we’re not really sure where they came from. So over the course of the rest of this first season of This Will Change Your Mind, we’re going to be looking at different ways that ideas have originated in the world and then somehow, whether for good or ill, it’s trickled through culture until it’s arrived right between your ears, and changed everything about how you think about the world.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: On the next episode of This Will Change Your Mind, we look at a different kind of metaphor. The ozone layer, and whatever happened to that hole that was supposed to be in it.
IAN STEADMAN: It’s a real mystery, because even though we know where the hole came from, it isn’t a hole, it isn’t a layer, and even though we don’t exactly know who came up with the phrase “hole in the ozone layer” it really did change the world, because it saved all of our lives.