“Blow the Whistle” or “Stop the Leaks”?

Government employees have been releasing information about the inner workings of President Trump’s administration at a furious pace. If you support the administration, you probably think this is a bad thing. Press stories based on these anonymous sources have revealed embarrassing, maybe even criminal, information about how the president and his team behave. You probably think of the people releasing this information as “leakers.” If, on the other hand, you don’t support Trump, you probably think the release of this information is a public service—“whistleblowing.”

While the content of the disclosures reveals nuances of Trump’s leadership style, the way we talk about the disclosures highlights nuances of language that have fascinated behavioral scientists—especially about the role of metaphor.

Metaphors can serve various functions in language and thought. The most well known is that they can elicit mental imagery and convey emotion. Consider the words “whistleblower” and “leaker.” For me, “whistleblower” conjures an image of a public safety whistle signaling a threat, whereas “leaker” conjures an image of a sinking boat or escaping gas. In line with these images, “whistleblower” casts a much more positive emotional light on the people who are disclosing the information. “Whistleblowers” play a fundamental role in a functioning democracy and must be protected. “Leakers,” on the other hand, create chaos and dysfunction; they must be stopped.

English doesn’t have a concise word for a person who discloses sensitive information to the public. “Whistleblower” and “leaker” fill this void in an efficient way.

In these ways metaphor might be considered an ornamental feature of language. The metaphors “whistleblower” and “leaker” are more interesting than corresponding literal language like “the person who released sensitive information about Trump’s administration to the press.” Examples of ornamental uses of metaphor abound in fiction and poetry, as when Romeo declares, “Juliet is the sun,” in Shakespeare’s classic play Romeo and Juliet. But metaphorical flourishes can be found outside of literary fiction as well, as when Ta-Nehisi Coates summarized President Obama’s two terms in office: “For eight years Barack Obama walked on ice and never fell.”

Until fairly recently, cognitive scientists considered this to be the primary function of metaphor: to make language more interesting. But research, reviewed recently by Lera Boroditsky, Rose Hendricks, and me in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, shows that metaphors can play a deeper role in shaping the way people think about complex sociopolitical issues.

For example, metaphors play an import role in filling the gaps between our language and our thinking. English doesn’t have a concise word for a person who discloses sensitive information to the public. “Whistleblower” and “leaker” fill this void in an efficient way—replacing a complicated phrase with a single word that conveys the same (and more) information. The gap-filling function of metaphor is generally considered to be more substantive than the ornamental role that metaphors serve when conveying emotion or eliciting mental imagery. And this is a pervasive role of metaphor, one that jumps out when you start looking for it. For instance, a task force on 21st century policing produced a 100-page document of observations and recommendations about current policing practices in the United States. A pair of contrasting metaphors captures the primary conclusion of the report: “Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian—rather than a warriormindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public” (emphasis added).

Metaphors can also affect how we attend to, understand, remember, and draw inferences from language. For example, the term “leaking” frames the act of disclosing information as a loss (a failure to contain), whereas the term “whistleblowing” frames the act as a gain (an important signal). In turn, the metaphors seem to imply different answers to questions like, Why would someone release this information? Leakers want to break the government. Whistleblowers want to inform the public.

Metaphors seem to imply different answers to questions like, Why would someone release this information? Leakers want to break the government. Whistleblowers want to inform the public.

Several behavioral studies have demonstrated how metaphors affect thought. In my own work, I have found that describing crime as a virus, rather than a beast, makes people more likely to support crime-reduction programs that emphasize social reform (education, jobs) rather than enforcement and punishment. Similarly, describing police officers as guardians, rather than warriors, of the community guides people to a more positive and constructive view of police officers.

Metaphors can also lead people to think about issues in new ways. Consider Edward Snowden’s description of leaking–whistleblowing:

“Whistleblowers … are the roots of the garden of our democracy that informs our voting decisions. Journalists are the gardeners. They cultivate. They produce sources. They keep them in a productive manner. And the stories that they produce, that the public enjoys, they are the fruit.”

In this description, whistleblowers–leakers are situated in a broader sociopolitical context: a garden of democracy that nourishes the public. The metaphor leverages what we know about plants and food to promote a particular way of thinking about whistleblowing–leaking. Whistleblowers are as important to our democracy as roots to plant.

Further Reading & Resources

  • Thibodeau, P., Hendricks, R., & Boroditsky, L. (2017). How linguistic metaphor scaffolds reasoning. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. (Link)
  • Gold, D. (2017). James Comey is not a leaker: He is a whistleblower. Slate. (Link)
  • Grady, J. (2017). Using metaphor to influence public perceptions and policy: How metaphors can save the world. In Semino, E., and Demjen, Z. (Eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Metaphor and Language. London: Routledge, pp. 443-454. (Link)
  • Hauser, D. J., & Schwarz, N. (2015). The war on prevention: Bellicose cancer metaphors hurt (some) prevention intentions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(1), 66-77. (Link)
  • Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. (Link)