Wild Beast or Virus? The Metaphor Makes the Difference

By Justin Rossow

Note: This excerpt is from pages 201-205 of Preaching Metaphor: How to Shape Sermons that Shape People by Justin Rossow. Minor formatting edits have been made.

Metaphor significantly shapes the way we process information and make decisions about the future; but we consciously discount the power of metaphor, even while we are being shaped by it. That’s part of the findings published in a 2011 article aptly titled, “Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning.”[1]

Researchers began a series of related experiments by gathering two groups of people and asking them to brainstorm possible solutions to two different kinds of problems: the first group was asked to come up with ways of dealing with a wild beast that was loose in the city and causing injury and even death. The second group was asked to figure out ways to address a contagious, life-threatening virus that was starting to spread through the city. The researchers noted the different kinds of imagined solutions to these imaginary problems and dismissed both groups.

With that information in hand, the researchers were ready to have some fun. With new sets of volunteers, the researchers tested the power of metaphor to shape the way we think. All variations of the experiment divided new volunteers into two groups. Each group was asked to brainstorm possible solutions to the same problem—a rising crime rate in the city—but the information on crime was presented in two different ways. In the first experiment, the first group received information on crime as if it were a wild beast loose in the city; the second, as if crime were a contagious, life-threatening virus.

The first group received this report:

Crime is a wild beast preying on the city of Addison. The crime rate in the once peaceful city has steadily increased over the past three years. In fact, these days it seems that crime is lurking in every neighborhood.

In 2004, 46,177 crimes were reported compared to more than 55,000 reported in 2007. The rise in violent crime is particularly alarming. In 2004, there were 330 murders in the city, in 2007, there were over 500.

The second group received the same information with only minor variance. I’ve bolded the differences in the two reports:

Crime is a virus infecting the city of Addison. The crime rate in the once peaceful city has steadily increased over the past three years. In fact, these days it seems that crime is plaguing every neighborhood.

In 2004, 46,177 crimes were reported compared to more than 55,000 reported in 2007. The rise in violent crime is particularly alarming. In 2004, there were 330 murders in the city, in 2007, there were over 500.

Researchers found that the people in the first group, who were presented with crime as a wild beast, were much more likely to offer the same kinds of solutions the original “wild beast think tank” had come up with to deal with a literal wild beast: track the problem down, get more effective hunting equipment, put the threat in a cage, or even kill it so it can’t keep hurting others.

The possible solutions imagined by the second group aligned directly with the original “virus think tank”: isolate the effects, study the origin or cause, quarantine as necessary and work on a cure.

The participants’ age, gender, religion, or political affiliation could not compete with the power of the metaphor to shape their thinking and imagination: people in the “wild beast” group were much more likely to suggest spending money on more aggressive enforcement regardless of any other individual factors, just as people in the “virus” group were much more likely to suggest spending money on research and treatment.[2] As you might have expected, the metaphor made the difference.

In subsequent experiments, researchers used variations of the report. In one, the Source Scene was only evoked by a single noun, beast or virus, while the verbs (preying and lurking, and infecting and plaguing) were removed.  In another, the metaphor was moved to the end of the report instead of the beginning. Based on what you have learned about metaphor, narrative structure, situational logic, and the tips of icebergs, you could have anticipated the results. But what you might not have expected is how naturally the participants glossed over the power of metaphor. The study made this observation in the discussion of that first variation of the experiment:

Despite the clear influence of the metaphor, we found that participants generally identified the crime statistics, which were the same for both groups, and not the metaphor, as the most influential aspect of the report.

These findings suggest that metaphors can influence how people conceptualize and in turn approach solving an important social issue, even if people don’t explicitly perceive the metaphor as being especially influential.

Did you catch that? The participants seemed to think, by and large, that they were being influenced by “just the facts;” as they experienced the information, the statistics seemed to carry the most weight.

But even though the group generally experienced the statistics as most influential, that can’t be right: the crime statistics were the same in both reports. So the most influential part of the experience had to be something else.

Although the facts seem like a reasonable thing to base your conclusion on, the situational logic of the metaphor was actually interpreting and structuring those facts so that some decisions seemed natural and obvious while others were rejected or ignored. Once you see crime as a virus, you will naturally evaluate the statistics differently and come up with different obvious responses than if you saw crime as a wild beast. Even if you aren’t consciously aware of it, the metaphor makes all the difference.

I can’t understate the importance of that observation for preaching. If you want to help people grow in their relationship with Jesus and live out that faith in their everyday lives, then you can’t discount the power of metaphor to shape what seems natural and obvious, what actions and emotions are appropriate, and what possible solutions or outcomes seem most reasonable.

If I get in an argument with my teenage daughter about going to church and I think I am supposed to be “shaping her life” or “passing the faith on to the next generation,” what I think is happening—what I am experiencing, what I am hoping for and afraid of, my goals for the argument and the emotion I experience during the exchanges, what counts as  success or failure—everything about my experience, emotion, logic, and action in that moment is shaped very differently than if I think God is using my teenage daughter to shape me, and my daughter is on my rope as we take this journey of faith together.

The facts haven’t changed: I still want her to go to church and she still doesn’t want to. But my list of options, reasonable responses, even the kinds of emotions I am experiencing and the kinds of prayers I am praying have all shifted, without me being aware of how influential the metaphors actually are.

If I experience unexpected difficulty or pain, and I evaluate that experience as if God were some Great Bug Zapper in the sky, then my emotions and logic will tell me how to respond both to the pain and to a God like that. If I see God as a potter engaged in shaping me especially carefully in the midst of difficulty, the pain will still be pain, but my thoughts and emotions will have a different structure and focus. I will make sense of my experience in different ways. Trust will seem like a reasonable option; meaning and purpose are no longer off the table.

If I see the world around me as a threat, if I think the Church needs to be protected from the culture, if the people who don’t know Jesus in my life are fundamentally enemies, then even if I want to “witness” to them or “win souls” for the Kingdom, my feelings, thoughts, expectations, and evaluations will be shaped by the dynamics of containers and warfare: you divide the inside from the outside and then protect what’s inside from what’s outside, and only let those who belong on the inside cross the barrier.

If, on the other hand, I see the world around me as a field ripe for harvest, as a place where Jesus is active, as an adventure of discovery where you never know where the Spirit is going to show up, or how the leaven is going to do its work, then my emotions, expectations, desired outcomes, and imagined possibilities will shift. I will be much less likely to defend the faith and much more likely to walk a mile with someone who doesn’t believe like I do. I will have different kinds of conversations where I speak of Jesus in ways that are very different from mounting an offensive or even protecting my position.

What counts as success and failure will change. What I think I am doing “out in the world” will change. How I pray for other people, the kinds of sins I confess, what gives me joy, what gives me hope—all of those things will change based on whether I see faith as a citadel or as a journey. None of the people around me change, but my attitude, actions, and reasoning about those people change. The metaphor makes all the difference.

The Spirit uses you, as a preacher, to shape the faith and the faithful response of the people in your care. One of the most important things you can do to fulfill your vocation is to pay attention to the metaphors your people live by, and consistently, over time, help them adopt metaphors that more faithfully shape their natural responses inside and outside the Church.

The best way to shape someone’s actions is to shape what actions seem obvious or even possible; the decisions they make will be limited to the decisions they see in front of them. Even when metaphors are shaping their thinking and feeling and evaluating and acting, they won’t think the metaphors are very influential. But you know better. For the sake of your hearers, you need to become a steward of the metaphors—not just the mysteries—of the Kingdom. Change the metaphor, change the world.

[1] Paul H. Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky (2011) Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. PLoS ONE 6(2): e16782. Available at https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0016782. Cited in Sanders, Theology in the Flesh, 61.

[2] The researches still found differences between people in different demographics, but people within the same demographic were clearly shaped by the metaphor. For example, those in the Wild Beast group who identified as members of the Democratic Party were still less likely to suggest spending on tougher enforcement than self-identified Republicans in the Wild Beast group, but they were much more likely to suggest tougher enforcement as a solution than Democrats in the Virus group. And that held true across the spectrum: the metaphors shaped responses regardless of demographics.

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