War metaphors, such as “fight” and “battle,” are commonly used to encourage and motivate patients diagnosed with cancer. “Fight” and “battle” are among the top 10 verbs used to describe cancer.

However, a new study suggests that the use of these words can have a negative effect. The constant exposure to metaphorical utterance can be enough to make enemy metaphors for cancer a powerful influence on public heath with unfortunate side effects.

Researchers reviewed three studies on the use of metaphorical language. They found that relating cancer to an enemy significantly lessens the extent to which people consider cancer-prevention and health promotion behaviors.

According to the study’s lead investigator, hearing metaphoric utterances is enough to change the way people think about a concept. The phrase “win the battle against cancer” forces people to view cancer as an enemy they are at war with.

These metaphors emphasize power and taking aggressive actions toward and enemy.

Unfortunately, the majority of cancer prevention behaviors such as curbing alcohol intake, salty foods and smoking involve limitation and restraint. None of them fit into the enemy metaphor that promotes power and aggression. Therefore, enemy metaphors de-emphasize this subset of beneficial prevention behaviors and hurt people’s inclination to engage in them.

In one study, participants were asked to list cancer-prevention behaviors they would be willing to undertake. For one group the question was phrased using a war metaphor while for the second group the question contained no metaphors. The group exposed to the enemy metaphor listed significantly less limitation related prevention behaviors.

In another study, 313 participants read one of two health information passages about colorectal cancer. One passage contained metaphors relating cancer to an enemy while the second passage contained no enemy metaphors. Participants then rated the extent to which they intended to engage in various prevention, screening and treatment behaviors. Those who read the enemy metaphor passage had less intention to engage in limitation-related prevention behaviors that the participants who read the second passage.

Researchers believe that this data suggests that simply seeing war metaphors for caner diminishes the extent to which these behaviors come to mind.

The findings will appear in an upcoming issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.



Gerry Oginski
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