War metaphors are often used to motivate social change,  but do they? Recent research suggests they may be ineffective. As an example, here’s a comment from researchers on the psychological impact of a declared “war on cancer”.

“Our work suggests battle metaphors could have a negative impact on how people think about cancer and those thoughts could undermine people’s intentions to engage in healthy behaviours,” said David Hauser, a psychologist at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada.

In other words, short term gains of “wartime” thinking are negated by problems that emerge later on.

We who lived through the War on Drugs (is it over yet?) have long questioned the practical value of declaring war on something as complex and diverse as substance abuse. Nonetheless, there are solid reasons why war metaphors continue to be popular.

  • They make the public sit up and pay attention. That’s not easy, because we the public are continually having our attention pulled in different directions by competing interests. It’s worse now in the era of the Internet and mass communication of a type the world has never seen before. Still, squeaky wheels draw the most notice, and proclaiming war is the ultimate “squeak”.
  • Politicians respond to them. That’s because elected officials need to get re-elected, sometimes  every couple years, and are always on the lookout for popular issues to campaign on. The media favors “strong opinions forcefully expressed”, and the language of war is the strongest available.
  • Declaring war is a great way to draw funds and popular support. And money and support are key to the success of any war, shooting or not.

But there’s also a downside.

  • How do you define the enemy? Cancer, for instance, represents a host of different disease processes. Some will require dramatically different strategies to achieve quite different outcomes. What constitutes true success? No pulling down statues of foreign dictators or posing under a banner on the bridge of an aircraft carrier. Soon enough we’ll be hearing calls from the public for evidence of victory, and exactly how will we answer? With health statistics?
  • Success may well depend on unspectacular, even dull actions. That won’t make for good TV. How many times can we stare at charts and graphs on a screen? Watch film of children having their temperature taken at the local clinic?
  • There’s stigma to contend with. Many in the public find certain disorders unsympathetic. “I’d rather not think about drug addicts at all,” a man told me after a lecture. “I see it as their own fault. Not something I can or should be involved with.” I suppose in a War on Drugs, he’d qualify as a conscientious objector.

So what’s the answer? I doubt there’s any way to get politicians and the media to stop relying on war metaphors — they’re just too damn effective in the initial stages. I would encourage them to recognize the limited shelf life of such metaphors, and how war psychology can come to have an adverse effect on our real goals.

As a society, we seem to have recognized that it’s no longer in our interest to punish people for using drugs. There are a number of more effective approaches, as determined by research (not political ideology).

We shouldn’t let the military mindset prevent us from taking advantage of them. Even if they’ll never make for great TV.


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