It appears we must now add Morgan Freeman to the ever-growing list of respected men accused of unrespectable behavior. Ever since the #MeToo movement launched, it seems that every week another famous name is added to the list of powerful men accused of engaging in sexual assault or harassment.

One word that has popped up again and again when describing these men’s behavior is “predatory.” The term “sexual predator” is certainly not a new one, but in the past it was usually relegated to serial rapists and pedophiles. In the current discussion, the term is now being used in a broader way, to describe a general pattern of unwanted romantic advances and harassment.

The idea that men are equated to predators and their object of attraction equated as prey is not a new one. In fact, it is a metaphor commonly used to describe dating relationships more generally (especially heterosexual relationships). Just take a look at some of these examples from popular songs and movies:

“Animals” by Maroon 5:

Baby I’m preying on you tonight
Hunt you down eat you alive
Just like animals

Some might argue these descriptions are harmless, that they don’t actually encourage or train men to prey on women. But psychological research shows that metaphors are more than just words. They make people see abstract concepts (e.g., love) in concrete, simplified ways (love is a journey). As a result, just being exposed to metaphors can unconsciously alter people’s behavior.

My colleague, Jarrod Bock, and I recently decided to test if this men-as-predator and women-as-prey metaphor of dating is harmless or not. In our study, men and women of varying ages read a passage that described a man on a first date with a woman. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to read a neutral version of this reading. But the other half read a version that included several references to the men-as-predator and women-as-prey metaphor. For example, instead of referring to a “night on the town,” the metaphor version stated “a night on the prowl.” And rather than saying he “enjoyed the get-to-know-you phase” of dating, the metaphor version stated he “enjoyed the chase.”

– Melissa Burkley Ph.D.

Read more: New Study Shows Pop Culture Encourages Men to Prey on Women

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