Nav: Home

Metaphoring the police: It's all about the right choice of word

December 08, 2016

A well-chosen metaphor does wonders to explain concepts, to persuade and to ensure buy-in into any given matter. So says Paul Thibodeau of Oberlin College in the US, lead author of an article in Springer's journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review on the use of metaphors as a form of explanation. Thibodeau and his colleagues took note of how readers responded to the use of the more protective concept of "guardian" rather than the more militant word "warrior" to describe the police in President Barack Obama's 2015 task force report. It used these contrasting metaphors to emphasize how modern-day law enforcement officials should go about building trust and ensuring greater legitimacy.

Metaphors are part of everyday language. They help people think about complex, abstract, or novel ideas in terms of more familiar and often simpler concepts that people already understand. Yet relatively little experimental research has been done to examine whether and how metaphors are used and understood in everyday conversation. Thibodeau's team therefore devised three experiments using the task force report as a basis.

In one, participants were asked about the association that first comes to mind on seeing the words "guardian" and "warrior." Their associations were found to differ depending on whether they had previously answered questions about law enforcement. Both words elicited positive associations in a neutral context; "warrior" took on a more negative meaning for participants who had just been asked questions about law enforcement. As a result, it showed that a word's meaning depends on the context in which it is used.

In this study, participants were also asked which of the two metaphors they thought described police officers more accurately. Interestingly, the participants were almost evenly split in this judgment, which went hand in hand with their beliefs about policing and the criminal justice system. Participants who saw the police as "guardians" for instance felt the justice system was more fair and effective than those who considered them to be "warriors."

The second and third studies investigated how metaphors facilitate explanation. The researchers found that when the police were metaphorically described as "guardians," people expressed a more positive view of law enforcement and the criminal justice system than when the police were metaphorically described as "warriors." When the experiment was designed so that people saw these same words--guardian and warrior--but not as metaphors for police, the words did not influence participants' attitudes toward law enforcement. This suggests that a metaphor has to appear in the context of the subject being explained to exert a causal influence on those receiving the message.

Thibodeau says that the choice of the "guardian" metaphor in the Obama task force's report worked well because it changed participants' regard for the nature and role of law enforcement.

"Recent violent clashes between law enforcement and civilians have generated a national conversation about the role of police officers in our communities. Our research suggests that we need to pay careful attention to the metaphors we use to support our explanations," Thibodeau adds.

"Metaphors can efficiently encapsulate and communicate an array of structured attitudes and beliefs, and can guide people to think about a target domain in new ways," says Thibodeau.
Reference: Thibodeau, P. H. et al. (2016). The Metaphor Police: A Case Study of the Role of Metaphor in Explanation, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. DOI 10.3758/s13423-016-1192-5


Related Law Enforcement Articles:

Investigation: Problems in clinical trial reporting continue amid lax federal enforcement
Companies, universities, and other institutions that conduct clinical trials are required to record the results of most of them in a federal database, so that doctors and patients can see whether new treatments are safe and effective.
Catch-22 -- stricter border enforcement may increase agent corruption
Analysis of corruption cases among customs officers and Border Patrol agents reveals alarming trends depending on their years of service.
Dog down: Effort helps emergency medical staff treat law enforcement K-9s
Law enforcement K-9s face the same dangers their human handlers confront.
Vanished classmates: The effects of immigration enforcement on school enrollment
Partnerships between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and local police departments designed to enforce immigration laws reduced the number of Hispanic students in US public schools in adopting counties by 10 percent after two years.
Investigative report on FDA enforcement under Trump from Science's news department
Despite being one of the nation's most vital watchdogs, compliance and enforcement actions by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have severely declined since the Trump administration took office, according to an investigative report from Charles Piller, a contributing correspondent in the News department at Science.
FSU researcher finds adolescent views of law enforcement can improve over time
A research team, led by Assistant Professor of Criminology Kyle McLean, found that teens' attitudes toward law enforcement tend to improve as they reach adulthood.
Automated speed enforcement doesn't just reduce collisions -- it helps reduce crime
It's widely accepted that automated photo enforcement programs targeting speeding help reduce collisions and promote safe driving.
Computational model links family members using genealogical and law-enforcement databases
The notion of using genetic ancestry databases to solve crimes recently crossed from hypothetical into credible when police used an online genealogical database to track down the alleged Golden State Killer, a serial criminal who terrorized much of California in the 1970s and 1980s.
Study examines law enforcement-inflicted injuries using California hospital data
An analysis of hospital visits in California shows trends in injuries inflicted by law enforcement officers in the line of duty and how those injuries were associated with the race and ethnicity of individuals they encountered.
Breaking down the Wiedemann-Franz law
A study exploring the coupling between heat and particle currents in a gas of strongly interacting atoms highlights the fundamental role of quantum correlations in transport phenomena, breaks the revered Wiedemann-Franz law, and should open up an experimental route to testing novel ideas for thermoelectric devices.
More Law Enforcement News and Law Enforcement Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Clint Smith
The killing of George Floyd by a police officer has sparked massive protests nationwide. This hour, writer and scholar Clint Smith reflects on this moment, through conversation, letters, and poetry.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

If former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's case for the death of George Floyd goes to trial, there will be this one, controversial legal principle looming over the proceedings: The reasonable officer. In this episode, we explore the origin of the reasonable officer standard, with the case that sent two Charlotte lawyers on a quest for true objectivity, and changed the face of policing in the US. This episode was produced by Matt Kielty with help from Kelly Prime and Annie McEwen. Support Radiolab today at