Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Beasts and Viruses in Your Brain

From the WNYC Show On the Media, there was a story about Stanford's Lera Boroditsky and Paul Thibodeau's research on how we think, and specifically that we think about complex issues in terms of simple metaphors.  This approach is called metaphorical framing, and it shows up in political and social ethics contexts. More on what metaphorical framing below.

In this experiment, an imaginary city was either described as having crime problem "like a beast," or " like a virus."  In addition groups we given loads of additional details that were the identical. Groups told crime was "like a beast" went for police and prisons. Groups told crime was "like a virus" went for education and after-school programs. This showed that people took the complex issue of crime, and thought about it like controlling wild animals or controlling disease, which are quite different. Further it showed people were open to the suggestion of what metaphor to use rather than developing their own thought devices or metaphors.

Lera Boroditsky
The effect of the beast/virus metaphor was stronger than the political party. 71% were affected by the metaphor. Political party only changed responses by 10%.

Once you know that simple introductory metaphors impact the whole way a problem is framed and then solved, the word choice becomes enormously more important. 

Metaphors are not mere flurrishes but rather are tools of thought:

"Metaphorical framing supposedly serves as the transmission belt for experience and position-making. In this manner, metaphors are not mere linguistic devices that illuminate or obscure the issue. Rather, they are tools of thought and social construction. Given similarities in the way the human mind works in relation to a similar environment, a stable and functional body of knowledge or truths may be shared within a group or community. These “shared truths” within a socio-cultural group shape the way problems are set or defined, and decisions or positions are taken."

Decision makers are trapped by their metaphor-based thought processes,  in stilted language:

"How does metaphorical framing translate into decision-making? According to William Flanik from the University of Toronto, decision-makers have cognitive and affective biases that bound or constrain the mental tasks of problem setting, option-formulation and option-evaluation. In this regard, metaphors influence the cognitive and affective importance of decision inputs."

Flanik says that the Nuclear Missile Defense project was characterized as a "shield" for use against "rogues," and that this was an integral part of people's understanding without being objectively true or false.

My conclusion is that our brains are not as logical and well organized as we think they are. We are too easily influenced by whatever.