A new study finds that metaphors can shape the debate about how best to fight crime :

Psychology Assistant Professor Lera Boroditsky and doctoral candidate Paul Thibodeau have shown that people will likely support an increase in police forces and jailing of offenders if crime is described as a “beast” preying on a community. But if people are told crime is a “virus” infecting a city, they are more inclined to treat the problem with social reform.

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“Some estimates suggest that one out of every 25 words we encounter is a metaphor,” said Thibodeau, the study’s lead author. “But we didn’t know the extent to which these metaphors influence people.”

While their research focused on attitudes about crime, their findings can be used to understand the implications of how a casual or calculated turn of phrase can influence debates and change minds.

“We can’t talk about any complex situation — like crime — without using metaphors,” said Boroditsky, an assistant professor of psychology. “Metaphors aren’t just used for flowery speech. They shape the conversation for things we’re trying to explain and figure out. And they have consequences for determining what we decide is the right approach to solving problems.”

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