Sort-of-a-Rerun: The Power of Metaphor and Analogy

(This is a combination of two posts from 2005)

Verbal imagery can affect decision-making. For example, Columbia professor Michael Morris has found that when stock price movements are described in terms of “agent metaphors,” people tend to believe that the trend will continue more than they do when the same stock price movements are described in terms of “object metaphors.”

For example, “Caterpillar jumped up by 5% today” will be interpreted differently from “The price of Caterpillar increased by 5% today,” even though the two statements are semantically identical.

Moreover, Morris found that people–including financial journalists–tend to use agent metaphors more often when prices go up, and object metaphors more often when they go down. Why? “Think about if you’re hiking, and you see something on the trail. It’s either a rock or a toad. If it starts moving up, it’s a toad. If it moves down, it’s probably a rock. Evolution built into our brains that things that move up are alive. Things moving down don’t provide that cue.”

Morris goes on to say that “For the naive investor who’s trying to make sense of the newspaper, the mental concepts that get triggered by agentic descriptions of uptrends may lead them to think that an uptrend is a meaningful signal for tomorrow, while the downtrend isn’t a meaningful signal about tomorrow.”

See article at The Economist: Mind Your Language

A very interesting example of the power of metaphor and analogy can be found in the writings of General Edward Spears. During the opening campaigns of WWI, in 1914, the British Commander-in-Chief (Sir John French) was tempted to withdraw his army into the fortress of Maubeuge.  Spears, who in 1914 was a liason officer between the British and French armies, describes the C-in-C’s thought processes:


Sir John often spoke to me in after years of the lure of the fortress, so inviting, so protective with its belt of forts. It had loomed out of the fog of war like a safe and welcoming haven in the eyes of the leader of the small British force, who saw his command assailed in front by greatly superior numbers, his left flank threatened, his Ally melting away to his right. Why not take refuge in Maubeuge? As he reflected, so he told me, faintly, insistently, a sentence, not clear at first but demanding attention, began to echo in his memory. What was it he wanted to rememer? How did the sentence go? Suddently he had it. It was a phrase out of old Hamley’s “Operations of War,” read many years before; he did not remember the exact words, but the sense of it was clear: “The Commander of a retiring Army who throws himself into a fortress acts like one who, when the ship is foundering, lays hold of the anchor.” Whether Sir John took this as a warning, or whether the image evoked gave him a truer picture of the situation, I do not know, but the fact remains, and he often said so, that suddenly the fortress appeared to him as nothing but a snare; the mirage of safety faded, the illusion of a place of refuge vanished, and Maubeuge seemed to cry out: “I am Metz, would you be another Bazaine?” (The latter phrase referring to a disaster of the Franco-Prussian war.

The Commander of a retiring Army who throws himself into a fortress acts like one who, when the ship is foundering, lays hold of the anchor. As General Spears points out, had Hamley chosen an image less vivid to express his meaning, it would probably not have remained engraved in Sir John’s memory. The C-in-C might well have withdrawn into Maubeuge, which, in the educated opinion of General Spears, would have likely been a serious mistake.

This passage shows vividly the power of the right verbal imagery. But it also shows the danger, as well as the power, of metaphor and analogy. For there certainly were situations during WWI in which withdrawal into a fortress was a rational thing to do–indeed, there were probably situations in which it was the only sane thing to do. Suppose Sir John had been confronted with one of those situations..would the power of the “anchor” image then have seduced him into doing the wrong thing?

It would be impossible to communicate well, indeed even to think, without the use of metaphor and analogy. But while we should all strive to use verbal images effectively, we should always remember: Metaphors and analogies are only conceptual models–they are not reality itself. A stock is not really an animal that “jumps,” and a fortress is not really an “anchor.”

(The Spears quotes are from his memoir, Liason 1914. General Spears also played a liason role during WWII: he was Churchill’s personal represenative to the French army and government, and has described those experiences in the well-titledAssignment to Catastrophe. Brief excerpts from this book are here and here.)

11 thoughts on “Sort-of-a-Rerun: The Power of Metaphor and Analogy”

  1. Many thanks for this, David. I am hoping to write a book about metaphor and analogy, and have devised a game that elicits resemblances — now in beta at a museum in Australia — and this post comes as a very helpful reminder at this time…

  2. Both excerpts of Spears’ books are interesting. The reference to Kerry as a French deputy was especially significant. This man is now Secretary of State.

  3. Obama is all about using metaphor as a substitute for action.

    A lot of people don’t understand the difference between metaphor and logic. Metaphor isn’t logic, it’s assertion. It’s a mapping of one thing to another, a renaming. Renaming may be helpful but it may also be used to obfuscate; it isn’t the same as explaining.

  4. I don’t know how many of you listen to Rush – I listen on and off. But the other day he made a fascinating point. That is, How does one reconcile polls that say people don’t like the way the country is going” versus the polls that say “They like the job Obama is doing”

    And Rush made the point that people don’t associate Obama with the direction this country is going vie a vie his policies (and bill signings).

    Obama is actually “running against” the policies he has supported – eg, saying “we have to do more to get the unemployment level down”.

    People are not associating his policies with the man.

    At least yet.

  5. Bill B…in Stalin’s Soviet Union, people in the prisons and concentration camps often said “If only Stalin knew about this.” Indeed, some said it as they were led to their executions.

  6. David, that is a famous quote mentioned by many emigrants

    Obama has been campaigning steadily since 2008 and has enlisted a very sophisticated tech group (unsophisticated in economics) to run a permanent campaign. I fear this is the “new normal” in politics and policy will assume an even less important role in the future.

    We have finally arrived at the state described by Orwell and Huxley.

    I’m reading Amity Schlaes’ biography of Coolidge and wonder how such a man could ever overcome the system and start to fix what is wrong. Reagan once said that he could not understand how anyone who NOT been an actor could get elected. The Obama/Democrat machine will elect any cipher with the necessary speaking and physical appearance qualities. Policy and experience are optional and may be a handicap.

  7. “Obama has been campaigning steadily since 2008 and has enlisted a very sophisticated tech group (unsophisticated in economics) to run a permanent campaign. I fear this is the “new normal” in politics and policy will assume an even less important role in the future.”

    And furthermore, none of that group will ever have to answer any questions about their administration’s handling of the Aaron Swartz case.

  8. Yes, and it will predict inaccurately if the assumptions it is based on are wrong. Some of the discussions that we had on this blog re global warming were revealing in this regard. At least one of the participants, when challenged on his arguments, repeatedly referred to the AGW mathematical model as though it were interchangeable with empirical reality. That’s a common error.

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