As a PhD student one of my everyday tasks was to read and summarize social and cognitive psychology literature in preparation for my classes. Since I had already practiced as an attorney at the time, I was constantly noting research with clear applications to the law and legal practice to which very few people seem to be paying attention.
You will find many of us already implement some of these techniques in our practice, either subconsciously, or because we have found them anecdotally effective. As a quant geek, I could care less about anecdotal evidence. I want numbers, and based on that, I want to make sure I’m consistently using every trick in the book to win my cases.
In an effort to improve my own appellate practice, and because I miss Legal Geekery, I’m starting a new column I’m dubbing Psychology for Lawyers (#legalmindhacks if you want to discuss on Twitter/Facebook) where I will be summarizing useful psychology literature and opining about its applications to the law.
Today’s installment is Choose Metaphors Wisely—One Word Matters More Than You Think via researchers at Stanford.
Summary: A seemingly innocuous change to metaphor may effect you audience’s solution to a problem.
In one of these experiments, the researchers changed only one word near the beginning of a fake crime report: participants were either shown a report beginning with “Crime is a beast ravaging the city of Addison” or one that began with “Crime is a virus ravaging the city of Addison.”
In generating their predictions for the experiment, Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky asked a different set of participants how they would respond to a literal beast problem or a literal virus problem. Participants imagined organized investigation and development of social programs to address the virus epidemic. For the beast problem, they suggested hunting down the beast and caging or killing it.
It turns out peoples’ responses to the literal questions were similar when the literal nouns were used as metaphors to describe crime. People who read crime was beast were more likely to suggest law enforcement and punishment whereas those who read crime was a virus were more likely to suggest social reform.
Specific application: If you are a defense attorney, crime might be a “virus.” If you’re a prosecutor, it’s definitely a “beast.”
General application: Use metaphor to help influence, but consider Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to test your metaphor.
The researchers used Mechanical Turk to form their predictions about this experiment, and you should consider it for testing as well. It’s very cheap to hire a random (or not random) sample of 25 to replicate what the researchers asked: “Imagine a [metaphor] [gerund] a city and then describe the best way to solve that problem.”
This study indicates the responses to that question are going to frame how they view the literal concept you’re referencing as metaphor.
Criticism: No control condition where facts were present in the absence of metaphor.
This paper is sometimes cited as evidence that metaphor matters more than facts. I don’t know if that’s appropriate given the lack of a control condition where people were presented with the same facts with the lack of a metaphor (e.g., “Crime is a problem in our city.” as a prime). Certainly the metaphor effects affect, but to what extent does the presence or absence of metaphor influence a judge’s or jury’s feelings toward the subject? I have a feeling it does indeed, but I don’t feel comfortable making that statement based only on this paper.