Research & Insights

It’s Not Me, It’s You: Breaking Up With Relationship Metaphors

Here’s a warning for politicians who like to use stories about their family to frame political discussions: A new study out of the University of Dayton and the University of Kansas suggests that commitment-phobes may tune out when they hear speakers using metaphors about interpersonal relationships to make points about the issues.

The study, conducted by psychologists Lucas A. Keefer and Mark J. Landau, involved 323 participants in two experiments. The results, published in a 2015 issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, suggest that people who avoid close relationships have more trouble recalling information presented to them in the context of relationship metaphors – when a politician compares the country to a family, for instance.

In the first experiment, participants began by answering a series of questions designed to measure how much they avoid closeness in relationships with family, romantic partners, and friends. For instance, participants were asked to rank how much they agreed with statements such as “I prefer not to show [my mother/father/partner/best friend] how I feel deep down” and “I am afraid [my mother/father/partner/best friend] may abandon me.”

Participants were then asked to read an article about President Obama’s State of the Union address and his relationship with Congress. The articles contained the same facts about the speech but varied in how they described them. Some participants saw text which compared the relationship to a romantic entanglement: “He didn’t quite break up with Congress, but he made it clear that their relationship wouldn’t be supportive anytime soon.” Other participants saw a military metaphor: “He didn’t quite deploy his full arsenal, but he did make it clear that he would be willing to strike where he could.”

The participants were then given a quiz about the article. The researchers found that participants who avoided romantic attachment were less able to recall facts about the President’s speech discussed in the article.

The second experiment asked groups of participants to write a short essay about a period in which their close partner either neglected or supported them. A control group did not write an essay. Participants then read an article discussing a pending United Nations climate change treaty. Some participants saw a version which described the UN as a family (“The UN may not always be the most supportive family, but if we look after each other and deal with one problem at a time, we can get through this together”) or as a sports team (“The UN may not always be the most organized team, but if we keep our eye on the ball and take it one inning at a time, we can win this one together”).

Again, participants took a quiz about the article. Participants who were asked to remember being neglected by a close partner had a harder time remembering the article than the participants who thought about a time when they were supported.

“[A]ttachment avoidance in fact causes a defensive avoidance of relationship-metaphoric information,” the researchers write.

These findings are important for communicators who may use family and relationship metaphors in their work. “To the extent that speakers employ metaphors that elicit defensive avoidance, they may undermine the extent to which individuals can engage with target issues.

For example, relationship metaphors may alienate more avoidant voters by limiting their ability to consider social issues or prevent more avoidant students from understanding a classroom lecture,” the researchers explain.

But that doesn’t mean we should give up metaphors altogether. “Rather than avoiding metaphor, a better solution seems to be an acknowledgment of metaphor’s broad consequences and a call for greater flexibility in the language people use to make sense of the social world.”

Social Psychological and Personality Science

Lucas A. Keefer, University of Dayton
Mark J. Landau, University of Kansas

Posted: November 9, 2015
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