Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Doing Battle with Cancer is Not Helpful

We have used this metaphoric language for so long that we may forget to ask if it is helpful. Often the war and battle language is used to motivate patients. And even in obituaries we read about winning and losing the war/battle/fight/with cancer.

But according to a research report by David Hauser at the University of Michigan, it turns out that, “Exposure to metaphoric language relating cancer to en enemy significantly lessens the extent to which people consider cancer-prevention and health promotion behaviors.”

This is so interesting. The power of language and the reality of unintended consequences.

What Hauser determined is that hearing the “metaphoric utterances” (he’s an academic) changes the way we think of the disease. “When we hear the phrase “Win the war on cancer,” it forces us to think of cancer as an enemy that we are at war with.” Well, yeah.

But his crucial point is this: War and battle language emphasizes taking aggressive action against cancer. But, most cancer-prevention behaviors, such as changing diet, curbing alcohol intake, limiting salt and not smoking involve “limitation and restraint.” Not fighting. Hence, according to Hauser, enemy metaphors de-emphasize those kinds of beneficial preventative behaviors and actually hurt people’s willingness to engage in them.

Kind of like, “If I had to I would kick cancer’s butt, but I’m not going to just use less salt.”

Here’s Hauser: “Constant exposure to even minor metaphorical utterances may be enough to make enemy metaphors for cancer a powerful influence on public health, with unfortunate side effects.”

Wow—there is the power of words, and the danger of words-even words used with positive intentions.

*The full study will be available soon in a future issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

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