Why analogies make us smarter, and how to practice making them.

Analogies — as defined by psychologists — are useful when it comes to understanding difficult issues. What exactly are analogies, and how do we improve our skills in using them?

Similarities between occurring events and what we have memorized from the past help us think about future events. If we see dark clouds gathering and the wind is picking up, we know from past experience that rain is likely to fall pretty soon. If we see an object that has keys with symbols on them, we know from similarities with keyboards we’ve seen in the past, that we can most probably type in some information to interact. The ability to recognize similarities defines a large portion of our capacity to reason.

Psychologists use the term analogy slightly differently from everyday use, in a sense that the similarity should not be that obvious. For instance, a sneaker and a boot are not considered by psychologists to fall under the category analogous, for they are too similar. But they do find an analogy between a sneaker and a car tire since both share the similar function of touching the ground and giving grip for better and more comfortable movement, even though their physical appearance is quite different.

In reasoning, analogies appear in formats like “A is to B as X is to Y”. So, following our example above, “sneaker is to human as tire is to car”. It speaks for itself that the more life experience you have, the easier it is to find analogies from your memory.

In so-called Raven’s Progressive Matrices tests — which are part of IQ tests — images are used instead of words, so as to eliminate the possibility of misunderstanding certain words, or perhaps not even knowing them. This makes these very reliable tests about reasoning, which in place makes them very reliable tests of intelligence.

Using analogies can be very useful to be able to understand difficult problems. Describing an analogous yet simpler version of a problem will help others comprehend the more difficult counterpart in the analogy.

Even though analogies can be very enlightening, you do need extensive knowledge about the concepts that are being compared to be able to understand the analogy. An analogy that might work in one environment, might totally misfire in another. Understanding your audience is key here.

Research with modern brain scans — so-called fMRI’s — has taught us that we use quite a bit of our brain to make analogies. To be more precise, we use multiple areas of our prefrontal cortex, the front end of our brain that is more heavily evolved than in any other species we know.

Cognitive neuroscientist Michael Vendetti and his colleagues have found that we are actually not very good at using analogies to solve new problems we face, but that practice makes us better at it. Since the use of analogies can be very helpful in understanding difficult issues, practicing making analogies is a wise choice. Vendetti and colleagues suggest the following to promote the use of analogies:

1. Provide opportunities for people to make connections between new and previously learned concepts.

2. Present the simpler and the more difficult parts of an analogy simultaneously.

3. Provide additional cues, such as gestures, to highlight the similarities.

4. Highlight the differences as well, and explicitly indicate if, and where, the analogy goes wrong.

5. Use relational language to emphasize shared relations.

If you are interested in stories like these and more, you can buy Essential Psychology for Modern Organizations from Amazon and other bookstores:

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