Prisoners of the Metaphor

Metaphors matter. In a study of women who were about to give birth, the mothers-to-be were told to expect a local anesthesia before receiving an epidural. Nurses told one group they were going to get “a local anesthetic that will numb the area so you will be comfortable during the procedure.” Another group was told, “You are going to feel a big bee sting; this is the worst part of the procedure.” Not surprisingly, the group that heard the “bee sting” comment perceived significantly greater pain.

A fog of misunderstanding?

While accurate patient communications is a big challenge, especially as treatments become more complex, perhaps the most polarizing use of metaphors is in the highly charged debate about the economy. Here’s why…

One commonly used metaphor: the economy as a machine. This machine requires “fuel,” like tax cuts, to keep it humming along, and it should avoid government stimulus and regulation that can “stall” growth. The machine metaphor tends to be embraced by market fundamentalists who believe in unfettered capitalism.

Economists at the other end of the political spectrum say that a new metaphor is needed, especially since the market crash of 2008. They say the economy tends to be irrational and inefficient, not simple, linear and predictable like a machine. These folks see the economy as a garden that can bear fruit, if well tended, but will be overrun if not. Such tending may include the “seeds” of regulation designed to create standards that raise the quality of economic life.

In a 2012 New York Times Op-Ed piece, Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer say that with “Garden-brain,” inefficient and imperfect markets can be effective when well managed. “Machine-brain” tends to endorse the power and freedom of the individual as the greatest economic “engine” the world has known.

With two very different metaphors representing the economy, it stands to reason that our understanding will also be quite different. Is one metaphor better than the other? We all have our opinions. But if one is not better than the other, can language and other metaphors bridge the differences and help spur dialogue and, more important, solutions?

The sunshine of verbal clarity?

Whether you’re an economist, healthcare professional or writer, you must understand that the metaphors you use tend to completely frame your point of view for the intended audience, but they can be too rigid. They may help people understand complexity, but they have their limits.

So, choose your words and metaphors carefully, and remember it’s a useful shortcut to understanding, but without the nuance. And if you write carefully, the bluebird of happiness will sing for you.

Don Heymann

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