Is crime a virus or a beast? How metaphors shape our thoughts and decisions

By Ed Yong | February 23, 2011 6:00 pm

In 1990, in a depressed area of Buffalo, New York, eleven schoolgirls were raped. According to George Kelling, a criminal justice scholar, eight of these incidents could have been prevented. After the third case, police knew that a serial rapist was on the loose but, even though they had a description and modus operandi, they issued no warning to local parents. They saw their job as catching the criminal rather than preventing more girls from being raped.

Kelling argued that the cops hadn’t wilfully neglected their duties. Their actions were swayed by their views of police-work, which were in turn affected by metaphors. They saw themselves as crime-fighters who trod the “thin blue line” protecting innocent civilians from criminal marauders. With this role entrenched in their minds, they saw their job as catching the rapist, even at the expense of preventing further crimes. As Kelling said, the eight Buffalo schoolgirls “were victims, though no one realized it at the time, not only of a rapist, but of a metaphor.”

As with all complex issues, crime is suffused with metaphors. One common frame portrays crime as a disease, one that plagues cities, infects communities, and spreads in epidemics or waves. Another depicts crime as a predator – criminals prey upon their victims, and they need to be hunted or caught. These aren’t just rhetorical flourishes; they’re mind-changing tools with very real consequences.

In a series of five experiments, Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky from Stanford University have shown how influential metaphors can be. They can change the way we try to solve big problems like crime. They can shift the sources that we turn to for information. They can polarise our opinions to a far greater extent than, say, our political leanings. And most of all, they do it under our noses. Writers know how powerful metaphors can be, but it seems that most of us fail to realise their influence in our everyday lives.

First, Thibodeau and Boroditsky asked 1,482 students to read one of two reports about crime in the City of Addison. Later, they had to suggest solutions for the problem. In the first report, crime was described as a “wild beast preying on the city” and “lurking in neighbourhoods”. After reading these words, 75% of the students put forward solutions that involved enforcement or punishment, such as calling in the National Guard or building more jails. Only 25% suggested social reforms such as fixing the economy, improving education or providing better health care

The second report was exactly the same, except it described crime as a “virus infecting the city” and “plaguing” neighbourhoods. After reading this version, only 56% opted for more enforcement, while 44% suggested social reforms. The metaphors affected how the students saw the problem, and how they proposed to fix it.

And very few of them realised what was going on. The two reports both contained the same “shocking” statistics about Addison’s crime rates. When Thibodeau and Boroditsky asked the students to say which bits of text had most influenced their decisions, the vast majority circled the numbers. Only 3% noted the metaphors.

Thibodeau and Boroditsky confirmed their results with more experiments that used the same reports without the vivid words. Even though they described crime as beast or virus only once, and without any verbs to continue the metaphor, they found the same trend.

Compared to students who read about crime as a virus, those who read the “beast” report were more likely to suggest enforcement over social reforms. They were more likely to view police officers as people who catch and punish criminals, rather than people who deter crime or act as role models. They were more likely to look for more information about prisons and the size of the police force, than about poverty levels or youth programs. And as before, they thought the statistics in the report were more important than the language.

But these words have no weight on their own; it’s their context that gives them power. When Thibodeau and Boroditsky asked students to come up with synonyms for either “beast” or “virus” before reading identical crime reports, they provided similar solutions for solving Addison’s woes. In fact, the metaphors only work if they frame the rest of the text. If the critical sentence came at the end of the report, it didn’t have any effect.

So metaphors can influence opinions and choices, but how strong are their effects really? At the end of their experiments, Thibodeau and Boroditsky asked the students to state their gender and political affiliation. As you might expect, men and Republicans were more likely to emphasise enforcement, while women and Democrats leant towards social reforms. But these factors only created differences of around 8 to 9 percentage points. The metaphors, on the other hand, created shifts of between 18 to 22 percentage points!

These results show the hidden power that a simple choice of words can hold over our lives. Indeed, it’s virtually impossible to talk about complex issues like crime, the economy, health and so on, without resorting to metaphors. Some people even use these linguistic devices them as the basis of policy. In Chicago, an epidemiologist called Gary Slutkin is leading a crime-prevention programme that takes the crime-as-virus metaphor literally, treating it as a contagious disease whose spread needs to be contained.

These issues apply to science too. Metaphors about electricity as flowing water or teeming crowds can affect a student’s ability to wire up circuit diagrams. Good metaphors can make a complex and obtuse world seem exciting and accessible. A world of telomeres, epigenetic marks and enzymes can be brought to life by comparing them to shoelace tips, Post-it notes, locks and keys.

But bad metaphors can do a great disservice to the public understanding of science. The idea of the “evolutionary ladder” perpetuates the myth that evolution is about a steady linear march towards complexity. The militaristic metaphor of the “war on cancer” threatens to undervalue achievements in treatment that fall short of a total cure. The idea of the brain as a computer creates all sorts of misconceptions about how different parts of the brain work, how memories are stored and whether we will ever be able to download or upload our minds.

In a field where complex ideas must be conveyed simply but accurately, it couldn’t be more important for science writers to pick the right metaphors. Feel free to suggest your own best or worst examples in the comments.

Reference: Thibodeau & Boroditsky. 2011. Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. PLoS ONE

Image by Alan Cleaver

More on metaphors:


Comments (21)

  1. Quill2006

    Hey Ed, fascinating article. I’m in the midst of reading all your links, and the “student’s ability to wire up circuit diagrams” link seems to be broken for me, at least.

  2. The power of words – difficult to overestimate
    This also reminds me: in his controversial book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes stated the consciousness itself is built on metaphors and is largely a product of language
    “it couldn’t be more important for science writers to pick the right metaphors. Feel free to suggest your own best or worst examples in the comments”
    One scientist said about statistical models that they’re all essentially wrong, but some are useful. I would say the same of scientific metaphors
    Let’s see…
    – I never like when living cells are compared to cities
    – comparing electrons around the nucleus to planets orbiting around the sun should be an outdated metaphor, yet it’s still being used – not sure whether that is right
    – I agree with Richard Dawkins that DNA is a recipe more than a blueprint
    – “ozone hole” albeit over-dramatic gives people the idea the ozone depletion is something bad (which I think it is)
    – the “greenhouse” in greenhouse gases is actually a decent description of the real mechanism
    – as you said, comparing enzyme-subtrate interaction to key and lock makes perfect sense
    – and of course, in addition to “evolutionary ladder” as you suggested, I hate the expression “missing link”

  3. Sleve

    Cancer is riddled with metaphors (is that a meta-metaphor), many of which perpetuate the false believe that all cancer is immediately fatal. Two- and five-year mortality from congestive heart disease is (I believe) much higher than for many cancers, yet people react very differently to a cancer diagnosis than, well, pretty much any other diagnosis.

    Cancer (particularly breast and prostate) as a chronic disease, is a (not particularly illustrative) metaphor we whould strive towards. Alternatively, popularly known as “make cancer a word, not a sentence”.

    Ok, I’ll get of my soap-horse (high-box) now.

  4. Batnastard

    Addiction as a disease. Math as a language. Math as a sport. The Internet as a highway. These are all terrible.

    “your love, is like a bad metaphor…” – Bon jovi

  5. I don’t have anything clever to say, just that I really loved this article (and referenced study). I find it so amazing – and powerful – how language influences our thought processes. It’s great to see it quantified.

  6. Like Sarah, I have nothing in particular to say, except to share that I loved this piece. Really thoughtfully written and well-told, Ed. Thanks for sharing this!

  7. This is a great topic. A prime example of how language can affect perceptions of a situation, even among scientists, is the “battle” against “invasive” species, as though they are somehow materially different from “nonnatives.” For details, check out


    Greg Breining

  8. Great post. I guess the oft-mentioned wired / designed bodies (“cheetah’s bodies are designed for speed” ) is the example that drives me crazy……cheetahs were not designed, they evolved. It’s that old creationist language sneaking in, even when biologists speak.

    When we discuss crime – let’s take theft as an example – I heard somewhere that one in every 100 people are sociopaths (number may be off, sorry). It’s worth noting that yeah, these cases may actually be like chasing a predator. Whereas if someone is just down on their luck, and crime becomes a regional trend / more acceptable among a group of people, then it is more like a virus. Poachers in other countries are often reformed with incentives and once they see the dominos fall (other poachers working with law enforcement, making an honest living) the “virus” can be shut down.

  9. Brian Too
  10. Sasha

    @Emmy Yeah, I’ve noticed that one too. ‘Intellectual Design’ isn’t simply a religious position, it’s also a pervasive metaphor. I’ve wondered before whether the metaphor itself (and the framework of other metaphors — metaphors tend to fit together in a cohesive framework) influenced the development of Creationism. Creationists certainly capitalize on the language’s support — in particular referring to ‘creation’ instead of simply existence — whether they mean to or not.

    On sociopaths, I’ve heard a couple of different numbers (around what you said, but a bit higher for men), but I thought I’d point out that not all sociopaths are necessarily criminals, and some can function quite normally.

  11. @Sasha – Really interesting point about sociopaths. I heard they are of higher intelligence as well (maybe because their brains are not preoccupied with all that pesky empathy stuff). I wonder what other “symptoms” they would exhibit in normal life.

  12. A fascinating article. Metaphors are powerful and hardwired into our brain. By being more aware of the metaphors used by those who seek influence us we can be see through spin and political manipulation.

  13. This is fascinating. As a writer, I think a lot about the words I use not only for their literary impact, but also morally. This study gives scientific weight to it now, too.

  14. Jon

    After reading this article for a Criminal Justice Ethics course I would like to add how officials in the criminal justice system compare criminals to monsters as well. You see this metaphor especially when it comes to vicious crimes or serial and mass murderers. Very well written article though I enjoyed it.

  15. And the authors also note that the metaphor of crime as disease has two subtle variants. You can either depict is as a virus that spreads across a population (as in this study), or you can depict it as a cancer that eats away the population from within. In future studies, they want to look at the different effects of these slightly contrasting metaphors.

  16. @Jon: I find it sad that officials in the criminal justice system compare criminals to monsters.

    This kind of attitude only adds to the problem and doesn’t really stop crime.

  17. Fascinating piece and some nice synchronicity on this subject as I just read Abe Lincoln, Vampire Killer this weekend, which suggests that slavery was perpetuated in the US to ensure a ready supply of vampire food. I don’t mean to sound frivolous – it was an entertaining enough read, but I wondered when I reviewed it on Goodreads if externalizing evil (almost outsourcing it if you will) was a good – or moral – premise for a novel.

  18. Danna

    Addiction as a disease is not a metaphor. Addiction is a disease.

  19. FrankH

    The link for the flowing water analogy affecting the “student’s ability to wire up circuit diagrams” is

  20. Matt B.

    I avoid calling organisms “creatures”, since the etymology refers to creation.

    Not exactly on the subject, but when it comes to how the job of the police is framed, I get annoyed at the ads run before every holiday that say, “The police will be out in force this holiday. If you drink and drive, you will be arrested, you will go to jail.” It talks to you the viewer as if the police are out to get you. If they said, “Police will be out in force this holiday to make sure you aren’t harmed by drunk drivers,” it would set the police up as a protector, rather than an enemy, of the people. I sent a letter to the USDOT about that, since they pay for the ads.

  21. Always fascinating :)
    That remind me a previous article from the nytimes :


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