Metaphors enrich our language and allow us to make a deeper contextual connection. But did you know that metaphors and their hidden meaning can also influence language and behaviour?
So what is the meaning of metaphors?
Metaphors are imaginative ways of describing something with the same characteristics but in a different way.
A metaphor is a figure of speech. It tells us that one thing resembles another thing, but in a colourful way. It is an amazing method writers use to connect their readers to different concepts and ideas, or thoughts and meanings. Metaphors link the ordinary to the extraordinary, the mundane to the fabulous, and the perplexing to the familiar.
Before we go any further, let’s look at some simple metaphors:
- The city was a concrete jungle
- He felt a wave of terror wash over him
- She was the apple of his eye
- America is a melting pot
The Meaning of Metaphors in Literature
You often see metaphors in literature. This is understandable as they have the ability to paint a broader picture for the reader. Metaphors instantly conjure up an image in our minds. We know exactly what the writer is thinking.
For example, if I said that I was the black sheep of the family, you would instantly form an impression of me. Of course, you wouldn’t think that I was a farm animal. This is how easily the meaning of metaphors can influence language. (By the way, I’m not the black sheep, it was just an example!)
Famous examples of metaphors in literature
“Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed toward me like towers of Pisa.” — Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
“The very mystery of him excited her curiosity like a door that had neither lock nor key.” — Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
“She entered with ungainly struggle like some huge awkward chicken, torn, squawking, out of its coop.” — The Adventure of the Three Gables – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
How Metaphors Influence Our Language and Behaviour
Metaphors and Crime
So we know that metaphors can enrich language and provide us with powerful images. But then again, how do they influence language and behaviour? Studies have shown that metaphors can influence the way we think. Furthermore, without us even knowing.
One such study looked at the relationship between metaphors of crime and subsequent punishment recommendations. In 2011, students at Stanford read two crime reports. Each one used two different metaphors to describe rising crime in the city. The metaphors were:
Crime is a:
- ‘Wild beast preying on the city’
- ‘Virus infecting the city’
Students were asked to come up with solutions to reduce the crime problem. 75% of those who had read the ‘beast’ scenario opted for punishment including jail time with 25% wanting social reform. However, only 56% of the ‘virus’ scenario wanted punishment and jail with 44% opting for social reform.
Yet, the most interesting part of this study is not the way the meaning of metaphors influenced both groups. In the final part of the study, students were asked to highlight which part of the crime report had most influenced them. The majority chose the facts, the crime statistics and the numbers, not the metaphors. This suggests that we are not even aware of the influence metaphors have on our decisions.
“Metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with.” ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ – Milan Kundera
Metaphors and Health
Unfortunately, we all know someone battling cancer right now. We are urged to fight the war on cancer. But even that metaphor, ‘battling cancer’ could be doing more bad than good. A 2015 study showed by using metaphors presenting cancer as the enemy could be counter-productive.
All medical advice regarding cancer treatment is to adopt preventative behaviour. We do this by avoiding high-risk behaviours. High-risk behaviours are: smoking, eating too much of the wrong types of food, alcohol and not exercising enough. But these are self-limiting types of behaviour and are not associated with fighting.
Studies show that people are more likely to identify with an enemy and the fight, rather than adjusting their own habits. The worst part is that by identifying with these metaphors, study participants admitted they were less likely to engage in any steps to reduce cancer preventative behaviours.
Metaphors and Climate Change
However, in some cases, using war metaphors can help influence our behaviour in a positive way. For example, climate change.
One study used metaphors to describe climate change as a ‘war’, ‘race’ or ‘issue’. Participants read a brief statement about climate change containing these metaphors and the government’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
When framed as a war against climate change, participants were more likely to ‘perceive more urgency and risk surrounding climate change and express a greater willingness to increase conservation behaviour’. Participants felt less urgency when climate change was presented as an issue or race.
Metaphors and Gender
Metaphors are commonly used to describe women in the workplace. For instance, women have to ‘break the glass ceiling’ in order to get ahead. Women in low paid jobs may feel they are on the ‘sticky floor’. Or how about the many ‘firewalls’ or ‘labyrinths’ women have to cross? Not to mention the sheer myriad of glass ceilings now in existence? There’s the bamboo ceiling (Asian women), the concrete ceiling (black women) and the stained glass ceiling (religious women).
On reaching the designated number of delegates required to run for the Democratic primary race to become the first female presidential nominee Hillary Clinton famously said:
“We broke one of the highest, hardest glass ceilings in America.”
But what is the effect of these metaphors on our behaviour? The meaning of metaphors in these examples suggest that women should adjust their actions. It is women that need to do something.
By using metaphors such as the glass ceiling, there is no room for discussion on why these obstacles are there in the first place. Why men tend to always occupy positions of power and women have to break through ceilings. There’s no talk of privilege or how men get promoted as a matter of course whereas women have to work harder or fight for their position.
The Meaning of Metaphors and Our Behaviour
Accordingly, metaphors can have a positive or negative influence on our language and behaviour. Furthermore, we might not even be aware of their influence. So what can we do to recognise the meaning of metaphors? More to the point, how can we be more in control of our lives?
Metaphors are all around us. They are in our media, in the news, in what we hear and read. They seep into our subconscious and help us make judgements about the world. We need to recognise the power of metaphors and the influence they have over our thoughts.
As a result, we can be ready when our views start to become distorted. Only then will we be able to appreciate the true power and meaning of metaphors.
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