The war on prevention: Bellicose cancer metaphors undermine prevention behaviors


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David Hauser1
1University of Michigan

Abstract

Cancer health information is dominated by enemy and war metaphors. However, these metaphors may influence understanding of, and responses to, cancer. Encountering a metaphorically-framed concept induces people to conceptualize the concept in terms of the metaphor. As such, framing cancer as an “enemy” leads people to map their knowledge of enemies (such as how to deal with them) onto how they think about cancer. Cancer prevention benefits from avoiding risk-increasing behaviors, yet self-limitation is not closely associated with fighting enemies. If so, the metaphor may hurt prevention intentions involving self-limitation.

In two studies, participants read messages with minute wording variations that established different metaphoric frames (randomly assigned). Results show that metaphorically framing cancer as an enemy lessens how often participants think of limiting cancer risk-increasing behaviors (study 1) and lessens how much participants intend to limit risk-increasing behaviors (study 2). Additionally, enemy framing does not increase intentions for more active behaviors like electing for cancer screening procedures. Overall, these results suggest that enemy metaphors in cancer information reduce some prevention intentions without increasing others, making their use potentially harmful for public health.