Why Metaphors Beat The Snot Out Of Facts When It Comes To Motivating Action

Douglas Van Praet returns to tackle the magic of metaphors, and explain why they beat facts when it comes to creative persuasion.

Why Metaphors Beat The Snot Out Of Facts When It Comes To Motivating Action
[Photo: Simon Battensby, Getty Images]

Metaphors have long permeated creative expression from cave paintings to commercials. And there’s a good reason that Geico is “So easy, a cavemen can do it,” Prudential gives you a “Piece of the Rock,” and Allstate’s “Good Hands” people help rid you of that bastard “Mayhem.” Science is proving that metaphors can have a huge impact on our decisions, even more than facts.

Photo: Flickr user Les Haines

Feeling Our Way To Reason

This happens because our neural circuits don’t clearly differentiate between the real and the metaphorical. Yale University psychologist John Bargh and Lawrence Williams of the University of Colorado did a remarkable experiment showing how this literal-metaphorical confusion covertly shapes our attitudes and opinions. Subjects met up with an experimenter who appeared to struggle while holding a handful of folders and a cup of coffee, a scenario that was actually part of the test design. Experimenters then asked subjects to assist them by holding a cup of either warm or iced coffee. Participants were then asked to read a description of a person and rate their attributes. Those that had held the warm cups were more likely to rate the person as having a warmer personality.

Further research by Bargh, MIT’s Joshua Ackerman and Harvard’s Christopher Nocera has corroborated that sitting in a hard seat can make you a hard-ass when buying a new car, or attaching your resume to a heavier clipboard can make your candidacy appear more serious. No wonder we speak of “solid” candidates, “hefty” sums and the “gravity” of a situation. We make meaning through metaphor.

And our external physical experiences are at work unconsciously priming our internal beliefs in a phenomenon that cognitive scientists call embodied cognition.

Photo: Flickr user Sean P. Anderson

Feelings Beat Facts

Similarly, a recent study by Stanford University psychologists demonstrated just how powerful a single word can be in influencing our actions provided that one word is a metaphor. Study subjects were read a description about rising crime rates in a fictitious city and then asked a series of questions about what actions they’d recommend to reduce crime. The objective of the research was to determine how the course of action varied depending upon whether or not the crime was described as a “beast” or a “virus.”

The researchers found that participants were about 20% more likely to recommend approaches based in law enforcement when framing rising crime rates as a “beast.” When crime was described as a “virus” they were more apt to suggest solutions relating to social reform, such as programs aimed at boosting economic growth or underperforming schools. The descriptions included troubling statistics, such as a jump in 10,000 crimes with murders going up from 330 to 500 in four years. When asked what motivated their decisions, subjects almost universally pointed to the facts with relatively few identifying the metaphor.

But they were wrong.


As Assistant Professor Lera Boroditsky said in the study, “People like to think they’re objective and making decisions based on numbers. They want to believe they’re logical. But they’re really being swayed by the metaphors.”

Similarly, marketers that fail to grasp that customers often don’t know what moves them, will be wrong too.

Photo: Flickr user Ken Walton

Metaphors Motivate Movements

When marketers evaluate new concepts in research, respondents often make these very same mistakes. When asked what drives their motivations after reading ads or descriptions of products, panelists invariably point to the substantive facts and stats. And marketers that listen to these false convictions will be making a mistake too, while undermining their brand. It’s critical to be aware of these unconscious emotional drivers, not only when designing products and experiences, but also when creating branded content.

That’s because most of our thinking is really the result of our feelings bubbling up from below the watermark of consciousness. Provocative metaphors, much like artful stories, are among the most impactful tools of influence ever, because they evoke feelings that bypass critical thinking. And they easily transform abstract ideas into tangible, simpler more relatable representations.

Take heed and take stock in the strength of symbol, simile, synecdoche, allegory, analogy and emblem. These potentially insidious devices can spread the emotional contagion that incites genocide, as when Rwandan Hutu extremists broadcasted hate propaganda urging “to weed out the cockroaches” and kill the Tutsi minority. Or they can sow the seeds of human compassion and uplift the conscientiousness of an entire nation, as Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently proved in his symbolically suffused “I have a dream” speech.

Photo: Flickr user Igor Domsac

Cross-Wired For Creativity

These analogies not only influence the way we decide but also how we create. This happens by encouraging the overlapping of ideas, which are the engines of imagination. There is strong evidence that metaphorical thinking and creative thinking are linked. Creative people are eight times more likely to have a peculiar condition called synesthesia, a neurological condition that appears to be inherited with greater prevalence in women and left-handers. Synesthesia is characterized by the cross-wiring of the brain’s sensory perceptions. Synesthetes might perceive numbers as colors or tastes as geometric shapes, for example, the number one is red, or sugar feels round.


A few famous synesthetes include painters Vincent van Gogh and Wassily Kandinsky, novelist Vladimir Nabokov, and musicians Lady Gaga, Mary J. Blige, and Pharrell Williams. And while the most influential artists ever from Shakespeare to Jimi Hendrix may or may not have been completely synesthetic, they were masters of transforming their overlapping senses into brilliant masterpieces. To some extent, we’re all slightly synesthetic evidenced by such phrases as “loud tie” or “sharp cheese.”

Photo: Flickr user Jirka Matousek

Mind Is a Metaphor

That’s because our mind is literally a metaphor. It works by bridging our senses, thoughts, feelings and ideas. Creativity is the process of combining and releasing seemingly unrelated immaterial concepts into material innovations. These evocative tangible expressions from paintings to products automatically generate emotions that drive decisions, simply by thinking about or experiencing them.

In the quest for meaningful innovation, let’s not get lost in the literalness of our endeavors. It’s the feelings not the facts that count most. After all, everyone knows that “all the world” isn’t really “a stage,” Facebook isn’t actually a book, and there are probably more interesting people in the world to have a beer with than that man in the Dos Equis commercials.

Douglas Van Praet is a brand strategy consultant and the author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing. He is also a keynote speaker and founder of Unconscious Branding, brand strategy consultancy whose approach to marketing draws from unconscious behaviorism and applies neurobiology, evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics to business problems.


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