Communication and persuasion: The importance of metaphor and framing

by Stephanie Chasteen on June 6, 2011

I‘ve written here and here about climate and persuasion, and what this means for us as education reformers working to change the system from within.  Today I want to write about metaphor and framing.

Framing is basically how you describe, or “frame” an issue — what is the issue, why is it important, what should be done about it?  What words do you choose, and which of the facts do you choose to convey?  Framing is such an important idea that Matt Nisbett dedicated a blog — Framing Science — to the topic for the past four years.  He’s argued that climate deniers have been very good at framing communication about climate change to be persuasive, whereas climate scientists have doggedly stuck to pure, dry facts, leaving it to the public to make up its mind.  However, it’s important to decide how you want your audience to perceive your message, and some subtle things that we do affect that perception.

For example, an article that begins, “Many climate scientists believe…” immediately (and subtly) frames climate change as an issue of doubt.

An article that describes climate change as a “threat worse than terrorism” frames it as a violent issue.

The campaign, “What would Jesus drive?” frames the environment as an issue of religious stewardship.

Which frame is best?  Depends on your audience.

Take, for example, a recent study on smoking.  You can encourage smokers to quit in many ways, one of which is to use a “positive frame” — quitting smoking will decrease your chances of getting lung cancer.”  A negative frame, on the other hand, would be the stick instead of the carrot — “not quitting smoking will increase your chances of getting lung cancer.”

They found that smokers who were already thinking of quitting responded better to the positive frame — it encouraged them to do something they were already considering doing.  The smokers who weren’t considering quitting, however, responded better to the negative frame – the fear spurred them to action.

Here’s another study, on the use of metaphor. The authors had participants discuss how best to handle crime in a fictional suburb.  When crime was described as a “wild beast preying on the town” versus a “virus infecting the town”, participants strongly favored punitive and enforcement solutions.  Those who saw the “virus infecting the town” metaphor, instead, preferred reform and social solutions.  The study participants almost never identified this metaphor as the reason why they chose their particular crime solutions.  And, hauntingly, when asked to seek out more information on the topic, they were more likely to choose to look for information that confirmed the bias that was created by the metaphor.

Here’s another interesting study.  A recent study (Yeager et al., Public Opinion Q., 75, 2011) found that participeople are more likely to indicate that global warming or environment is an important problem if the question is phrased as “”What do you think will be the most serious problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it?” rather than the more standard “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?”  Also Republicans are more likely to think that “climate change” is real than is “global warming” (and the latter phrase is most frequently used by conservative think tanks).  Democrats aren’t affected by the wording.  So, another example of framing.

So, the metaphors we choose when describing a problem are of key importance — and their influence is extremely covert.  What metaphors do we tend to use in communicating about education reform?  Which ones should we use?  Obviously, we should use different metaphors when talking to the reform-friendly versus the reform-antagonistic.  I want to do a study on this!

Next time I’m hoping to write about the report of the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change!


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