When a bad metaphor may not be a victimless crime: The role of metaphor in social policy


Metaphors are pervasive in our discussions of abstract and complex ideas (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980), and have been shown to be instrumental in problem solving and building new conceptual structure (e.g., Gentner & Gentner, 1983; Nersessian, 1992; Boroditsky, 2000). In this paper we look at the role of metaphor in framing social issues. Our language for discussing war, crime, politics, healthcare, and the economy is suffused with metaphor (Schön, 1993; Lakoff, 2002). Does the way we reason about such important issues as crime, war or the economy depend on the metaphors we use to talk about these topics? Might changing metaphors lead us to different conceptions and in turn different social policies? In this paper we focused on the domain of crime and asked whether two different metaphorical systems we have for talking about crime can lead people to different ways of approaching and reasoning about it. We find that framing the issue of crime metaphorically as a predator yielded systematically different suggestions for solving the crime problem than when crime was described as a virus. We then present a connectionist model that explores the mechanistic underpinnings of the role of metaphor.

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