The Power of Metaphors

In social advocacy as well as political messaging, metaphors can be very powerful. This is not a new realization. Ancient masters of rhetoric praised the power of metaphors for conveying knowledge. Quintilian, for example, said that metaphors accomplish “the supremely difficult task of providing a name for everything.” Aristotle observed that “ordinary words convey only what we know already; it is from metaphor that we can best get hold of something fresh.”

Empirical research suggests that metaphors indeed look like heavyweights of reasoning and influence.

Research on Metaphorical Thinking

In a study by Paul Thibodeau and Lera Borodistky (2011), participants  read a passage on increasing crime rate in a fictional city of Addison. In one of the experiments, half of the participants read that crime is the beast; the other half read that it is the virus. Thus, the only difference between the passages was the single word – the metaphor:

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.

Of the participants who read that crime was the beast ravaging the city, 71% suggested enforcement – fighting back against the crime and hiring more police officers and building more jails to catch and cage more criminals. Participants who read that crime was the virus were more likely to propose reforms: investigating the root causes and instituting social reforms (only 54% suggested enforcement).

As the study authors further observe, the differences in the opinion generated by the metaphors were larger than differences caused by political affiliation (between Democrats and Republicans) or their gender. In the experiment, metaphors made the difference of 18–22% in enforcement responses; yet, different political affiliations or difference between the two genders would make up for only 8–9% of the difference.

So the difference is significant, even more so because it is due to only one word.

Metaphors as Frames

The contemporary research has revealed, in part, why we are swayed by the metaphor: it serves as the frame. In essence, metaphors organize all the incoming information, they serve as a sort of filter for the incoming information. But the metaphor filters out only the incoming information –  it does not filter out the information that’s already in.

Early Framing

That is why it is crucial to bring into play our metaphors as early as possible in the discussion. The experiment by Thibodeau and Borodistky showed precisely that: if we employ a metaphor late in the discussion, it is ineffective.

To bring this point home, considers the following example (from Bransford and Johson 1972). Read the passage and try to remember as much as you can:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups depending on their makeup. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo any particular endeavor. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important, but complications from doing too many can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. The manipulation of the appropriate mechanisms should be self-explanatory, and we need not dwell on it here. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell.

How much you have been able to remember? Probably not very much. What if you were told beforehand that you’ll be reading a passage on washing clothes? It is very likely that this time you would have no problem remembering the passage.

Metaphor acts in a very similar way: it creates the frame which helps to sort out all the incoming information (in a biased way, however), but it is of little use if all the information had been already presented. So the metaphor can be the queen of rhetorical persuasion figures only if it is an early figure.


  • Thibodeau PH, Boroditsky L (2011). Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. PLoS ONE 6(2)
  • Lanham R. A., A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2nd ed., 1991).
  • Richard Nate, Metaphor. In Encyclopedia of Rhetoric. Thomas O. Sloane (ed.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
  • Bransford JD, Johnson MK (1972) Contextual prerequisites for understanding: Some investigations of comprehension and recall. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 11: 717–726