Heard the phrase “metaphor is a meta-door”?

Is tackling climate change a ‘battle’ or a ‘race’?

How do “thought building-blocks” alter response?

Here, red10 ‘s Hazel Howard looks at what influencing-guru Professor Cialdini calls “the power of Associations”, i.e. harnessing language and images to have impact.

The building blocks of thought

In Part Two of Cialdini’s book, “Pre-suasion”, the focus is on: Processes – The Role of Association.

“In the family of ideas, there are no orphans. Each notion exists within a network of relatives linked through a shared system of associations. Just as amino acids can be called the building blocks of life, associations can be called the building blocks of thought.”

So… when we are presented with some new information (in whatever form) we will inadvertently link (or build) this to something else we have experienced, making connections that will then stimulate a response from us.

Linking thoughts to influence outcomes

All mental activity is composed of patterns of associations. Some of this may be more subliminal than others. Both language, music and the use of images – to name a few stimuli – can be used to produce desirable outcomes. Any attempts to influence will be down to the extent the associations they trigger are attractive to those we want to influence.  

When we are interacting more vocally and want to influence others, we need to use language that manages the other person’s associations to what we are saying. This will then facilitate the other person’s thoughts, perceptions or emotional reactions.  One of the most powerful ways this can be achieved is by using metaphors.  

So what are metaphors? 

A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t literally true, but helps explain an idea or make a comparison. It can paint a colourful picture and bring an emotive reaction depending on how it is positioned. 

Metaphor is a Meta-Door (to Change);

If you want to change the world, change the metaphor (Joseph Campbell)

By linking metaphors to our message, or create images for the other to see, we can (re-)shape the narrative we want the other person to focus on. This starts to link associations in the other person’s mind and encourages them to focus on what we want them to pay attention to.

If we look at some examples of how pre-suasion, subtle techniques, can influence outcomes…

When we are trying to influence others at work, we may want to encourage them to start with some simple tasks. A classic phrase is often to suggest that the team/individual start to tackle the ‘low hanging fruit’. This means that they can start with some easy, quick wins and is often a good phrase to gain momentum in a team. It creates a visual image of something achievable and therefore more likely to get done.

If we are looking at contrasting ways of describing something we want to influence, there was an experiment by Thibodeau & Flusberg, (2021) participants read a brief paragraph about how the U.S. was addressing climate change by reducing carbon emissions (Flusberg, Matlock & Thibodeau, 2017).

For some, the paragraph described a metaphorical war against climate change, using emotionally charged, war-related language to frame the point: “the entire country should be recruited to fight this deadly battle.” For others, these war metaphors were replaced with ones related to winning a race, “the entire country needs to step up to the line and get in front of this challenging problem.” This metaphor still captures the idea of a competition with winners and losers, but it lacks emotional intensity of war.

The results showed that the war metaphors made people feel a greater sense of urgency about the threat from climate change, leading them to express a greater willingness to engage in various conservation behaviours.

Whichever metaphor you choose will determine the response you get. How you position your language and the story you tell, will generate the behavioural shift in your audience.

Visual stimulation

We can also use visual stimulation on how to influence others. If we look at another experiment (Mandel & Johnson, 2002) on how to influence customers who were shopping on a furniture website that was selling sofas. When pictures of clouds were used on the landing page of the website, the customers identified the sofas as comfortable and soft. When the landing page image changed to coins, the consumers were more alert to the cost of the furniture. This was such a subtle difference but made a huge impact on how the minds of those looking at the furniture associated quality or cost depending on the wallpaper background on the website.

Individuals fed back that they didn’t believe they had been influenced by the images; which shows us how powerful this type of persuasion is.

So What

The next time you try to influence… what will be the metaphor you will choose?

If you are interested in exploring more options to have in your tool-kit bag (see what I did there!) then please get in touch and we at red10 would be happy to discuss further development in this area.