Back in 2005, when George Lakoff's ideas about "framing" in political discourse were a hot media topic, the common journalistic mistake was to see the issue in terms of words rather than concepts. Now the whole issue seems to have fallen out of fashion — at least, an interesting study, published about a month ago in Psychological Science and featured in the Random Samples section of Science Magazine, hasn't (as far as i can tell) generated a single MSM news story or even blog post.
The paper is Mark Landau, Daniel Sullivan, and Jeff Greenberg, "Evidence That Self-Relevant Motives and Metaphoric Framing Interact to Influence Political and Social Attitudes", Psychological Science 20(7): 1421-1427, November 2009. The abstract:
We propose that metaphor is a mechanism by which motivational states in one conceptual domain can influence attitudes in a superficially unrelated domain. Two studies tested whether activating motives related to the self-concept influences attitudes toward social topics when the topics' metaphoric association to the motives is made salient through linguistic framing. In Study 1, heightened motivation to protect one's own body from contamination led to harsher attitudes toward immigrants entering the United States when the country was framed in body-metaphoric, rather than literal, terms. In Study 2, a self-esteem threat led to more positive attitudes toward binge drinking of alcohol when drinking was metaphorically framed as physical self-destruction, compared with when it was framed literally or metaphorically as competitive other-destruction.
Their simple and clever technique involved three experimental steps, which I'll describe in detail for their first experiment. 69 Arizona undergraduates participated in what was billed as a study about media preferences. In the first step, subjects read an article about airborne bacteria:
[P]articipants in the contamination-threat condition read an article, ostensibly retrieved from a popular science magazine, describing airborne bacteria as ubiquitous and deleterious to health. Participants in the no-threat condition read a parallel article describing airborne bacteria as ubiquitous but harmless.
In the second step, subjects read one of two articles about U.S. domestic issues other than immigration. One of these articles contained a number of "country = body" metaphorical expressions, while the other one didn't:
In the body-metaphoric-framing condition, the essay contained language subtly relating the United States to a body (e.g., "After the Civil War, the United States experienced an unprecedented growth spurt, and is scurrying to create new laws that will give it a chance to digest the millions of innovations"). In the literal-framing condition, the same domestic issues and opinions were discussed using literal paraphrases of the metaphors ("After the Civil War, the United States experienced an unprecedented period of innovation, and efforts are now underway to create new laws to control the millions of innovations").
In the third step,
[P]articipants completed two questionnaires, counterbalanced in order, assessing their agreement with six statements each about immigration and the minimum wage. The immigration items included "It's important to increase restrictions on who can enter into the United States" and "An open immigration policy would have a negative impact on the nation." The minimum-wage measure included statements like "It's important to increase the minimum wage in the United States." Responses were made on 9-point scales (1 =strongly disagree, 9 =strongly agree) and were averaged to form composite scores for anti-immigration attitudes (α= .87) and agreement with increasing the minimum wage (α= .88). Preliminary analyses revealed no significant effects involving presentation order, so we omitted this factor from subsequent analyses.
As a final check, they asked participants "To what extent did the article on airborne bacteria make you more concerned about what substances your body is exposed to?" and "To what extent did the article on airborne bacteria increase your desire to protect your body from harmful substances?". As expected, the subjects in the contamination-threat group were slightly more concerned about exposure to harmful substances than subjects in the no-threat group (mean response 5.64 vs. 4.48 on a 9-point scale, SDs 2.18) and 2.20). Similarly for concern about protecting their bodies from harmful substances (M= 5.60, SD= 2.14 vs. M= 4.70, SD= 2.15).
Our primary prediction was that a bodily-contamination threat would lead to more negative immigration attitudes when the United States was framed in body-metaphoric terms than when it was framed in literal terms, whereas minimum-wage attitudes would be unaffected by this manipulation.
And this is indeed how it came out. Their Table 1 shows the size of the effect on the answers to the immigration question:
The answers to the minimum-wage question were not significantly affected.
I wouldn't have been confident of seeing this doubly-indirect framing effect. Reading an article about the dangers of airborne bacteria influenced answers about immigration – but only if a second article, on a separate topic like innovation, used body-metaphoric language in referring to the United States.
The most surprising thing is that reading about bacterial contamination didn't influence answers to questions immigration attitudes when the intermediate article didn't use "country = body" expressions. The underlying metaphor in that case is so ubiquitous that you'd think it would always be activated to some extent.
The second most surprising thing is the media silence. I guess the cause is some combination of fashion (framing is old news), distraction (the study wasn't about health care, climate change, or Sarah Palin), and complication (this line of research doesn't give political operatives any clear marching orders).