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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community.

How does manipulating through language work?

There are many ways to manipulate someone else: focusing on positive words while hiding negative information (‘95% fat-free’ rather than ‘5% fat’), giving neutral information an emotional twist through language melody, hiding important information in sentence positions which people usually don’t pay much attention to, etc. Language offers many instruments for manipulation. In this answer I will focus on how metaphors can be used in this way.


Image: Doctor-Major

One way to manipulate someone else is by talking about one topic openly while raising another topic below the radar. The effect of this strategy is that the listener’s judgment is directed in a suitable direction. Stanford Psychologists Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky have investigated how this can be done. They presented participants with crime statistics which were embedded in a text which treated crime either as a beast (‘preying on a town’, ‘lurking in the neighbourhood’) or instead as a virus (‘infecting a town’, ‘plaguing the neighbourhood’). When participants were asked what to do about the crime problem, those who were exposed to the idea of crime as a beast were more likely to suggest law enforcement actions such as to capture criminals, enforce the law or punish wrong doers. In contrast, participants who were presented with crime as a virus often opted for reform-measures such as to diagnose, treat or inoculate crime. Remarkably, the effect of embedding the same information in different contexts had a bigger effect than the usual factors associated with opinions on how to address crime. A conservative political affiliation or male gender biases people towards the enforcement side but not nearly as strongly as slipping in a beast-metaphor.

Why don’t people realize that metaphors should not be taken literally? Crime was never meant as an actual animal or an actual virus, of course. And people presumably understood that. However, in order to process the metaphors, first their primary meaning gets activated regardless of whether the context demands it or not. This can be shown with brain research. A team of Cambridge neuroscientists led by Veronique Boulenger presented participants with sentences such as ‘He grasped the idea’ and compared the activation pattern to sentences such as ‘He grasped the object.’ It turns out that hand-related brain areas were activated in both kinds of sentences even though grasping an idea has nothing to do with actual grasping.

Manipulating through language can thus exploit the fact that language users cannot help but interpret the primary meaning of words. This way, manipulating through language can work via the use of metaphors. This, in turn, can even be exploited to influence something as politically sensitive as how to fight crime.

Written by Richard Kunert & Diana Dimitrova

Further reading:

Boulenger, V., Hauk, O., & Pulvermüller, F. (2009). Grasping Ideas with the Motor System: Semantic Somatotopy in Idiom Comprehension. Cebrebral Cortex, 19, 1905-1914. (link)

Thibodeau, P.H., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. Plos One, 6, e16782. (link)

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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

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