Metaphor and the Pearl Harbor effect

Last week was the 69th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which FDR so memorably and so metaphorically described as “a date which will live in infamy.” This piece from MarketWatch provides an interesting Japanese perspective on the attack (and the date) and outlines how “Pearl Harbor” has become a metaphor for any unexpected, cataclysmic event, such as when Warren Buffett “used the phrase ‘economic Pearl Harbor’ to describe the credit crisis facing the U.S. in the autumn of 2008.”

Historical metaphors like these have hidden power. Psychologist Thomas Gilovich demonstrated this by asking a group of Stanford undergraduates to imagine that they were high-ranking officials in the U.S. State Department. He informed them that a small democratic country of no vital interest to U.S. national security had been attacked by a moderately powerful communist or fascist country and had asked the U.S. for help. What should the U.S. do—nothing, appeal to the United Nations, or intervene?

Gilovich then gave each student one of three different descriptions of this hypothetical foreign policy crisis, each of which contained a few minor associations and a few familiar names designed to trigger different historical analogies. One scenario featured allusions to World War II, another featured allusions to Vietnam, and the third was historically neutral. In the World War II scenario, minorities were described as fleeing in boxcars on freight trains, while the State Department briefing was described as held in Winston Churchill Hall. In the Vietnam scenario, minorities were described as fleeing in small boats up the coast, while the State Department briefing was described as held in Dean Rusk Hall, named after President Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of state during the Vietnam War.

These historical cues were, of course, entirely irrelevant to the decision participants had to make. Nonetheless, subjects given the World War II scenario made more interventionist recommendations than the other two. The Vietnam and control groups both tended to recommend a hands-off approach. Gilovich quizzed students afterward, and none was aware of the historical allusions embedded in the descriptions—and all denied that these associations could have influenced their decisions.

Historical metaphors create associations in our minds that are difficult to ignore, and those associations can influence our decisions without our conscious knowledge. Something to consider the next time you find yourself heading for your Waterloo or re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic

Blatant self-promotional message:

Want to know more about metaphor? Check out I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, out on February 8, 2011.