Metaphors can sway thinking on crime fighting

Last Updated: Thu, Feb 24, 2011 09:54 hrs

Washington: Imagine robberies are on the rise, homes are being broken into, and murder rates have nearly doubled. What should city officials do - hire more cops and lock thugs away in prisons?

Your answer and the reasoning behind it, can hinge on the metaphor being used to describe the problem, according to Stanford University psychologists.

Your thinking can even be swayed with just one word, they say, reports the journal Public Library of Science ONE.

Psychology assistant professor Lera Boroditsky and doctoral candidate Paul Thibodeau from Stanford 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, according to a Stanford statement.

'Some estimates suggest that one out of every 25 words we encounter is a metaphor,' said Thibodeau, the study's lead author.

In one study, 71 percent of the participants called for more enforcement when they read: 'Crime is a beast ravaging the city of Addison.'

That number dropped to 54 percent among participants who read an alternative framing: 'Crime is a virus ravaging the city of Addison.'