Everyday discrimination and cancer metaphor preferences: The mediating effects of needs for personal significance and cognitive closure

SSM Popul Health. 2021 Dec 18;17:100991. doi: 10.1016/j.ssmph.2021.100991. eCollection 2022 Mar.


Metaphors are often used to describe cancer experiences (e.g., battle, journey). Few studies explore how social threats (e.g., discrimination) shape metaphor preferences. We examined the relationship between discrimination and preferences for cancer battle metaphors (i.e., concrete, action-based) versus journey metaphors (i.e., open-ended, reflective) and mediating effects of needs for personal significance and cognitive closure. We also stratified the analysis when discrimination was/was not attributed to race and by racial/ethnic group. Four-hundred twenty-seven U.S. participants completed an online survey. Items included everyday discrimination, need for personal significance, need for cognitive closure, and preference for cancer scenarios using battle or journey metaphors. Multigroup structural equation modeling examined: serial mediation (i.e., discrimination predicting metaphor preference via needs for personal significance and cognitive closure) stratified by discrimination attribution; and single mediation (i.e., discrimination predicting need for cognitive closure via need for personal significance) stratified by racial/ethnic group. Discrimination was associated with battle metaphor preferences through serial mediation when discrimination was not attributed to race (β = 0.02, 95% CI [0.01,0.05]). Discrimination was directly associated with journey metaphor preferences (β = -0.20, 95% CI [-0.37,-0.06]) and the serial mediation was nonsignificant when discrimination was attributed to race. The single mediation model varied across racial/ethnic groups and was strongest for Non-Hispanic White participants (β = 0.17, 95% CI [0.07,0.30]). Discrimination may shape cancer metaphor preferences through needs for personal significance and cognitive closure, yet these relationships differ based on whether discrimination is attributed to race and racial/ethnic group. Given that the U.S. health system often focuses on battle metaphors when framing cancer treatment and screenings, individuals who prefer journey metaphors (i.e., those who experienced more frequent racial discrimination in the present study) may experience a systematic disadvantage in cancer communication. A more careful consideration of cultural, racial, and ethnic differences in metaphor use may be a crucial step towards reducing cancer disparities.

Keywords: Cancer metaphors; Certainty; Discrimination; Ethnicity; Race; Significance.