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Using Analogies for Creative Problem Solving


When you are stuck on a problem and need some new ideas, you can get creative ideas by making analogies to some other field.

An analogy is an abstract parallel between two quite different things. For example, you might analogize driving to project management. In both cases it helps to have a map (i.e., a plan) for where you’re going.

When you find one parallel, you can often find others–which is why analogies help with creativity.

For example, suppose you were a manager with an employee who was causing problems, and you were looking for ways of dealing with him. You might get some ideas by comparison to other human relationships. You might use strategies that parents use to manage children, if they were appropriate. Or you might adapt military management techniques for civilian use.

But if you are looking for something new, it pays to go farther afield. Suppose you were to compare the problem employee with a problem program on your computer. Here are four things you might do to deal with the problem program:

a) uninstall the program and use a competitor

b) reinstall the program fresh

c) upgrade the program

d) check users’ groups on the web for plugins or settings to get help with the problem

To complete the analogy, translate these back into suggestions for dealing with the employee:

a) fire the employee

c) send the employee to training

d) ask around on discussion groups for suggestions for dealing with this particular problem

Of these, “reinstall the program fresh” didn’t have an obvious counterpart–so that case warrants more thinking. Here are three things that “reinstall the program” could suggest for dealing with the employee:

None of these are point-for-point analogies to reinstalling a program. But when you are using analogies to generate ideas, you don’t need to be that exact. The test is not whether the analogy passes a strict test, but whether you got a helpful idea.

For more ideas on how to use analogies in thinking and communicating, see Anne Miller’s book on “Metaphorically Selling .”

Chibuikem M. Williams

Lovely illustration there, very easy to understand the concept with the examples you laid out. Gracias!

Jean Moroney

Thanks! Glad it was helpful.


Appreciating the hard work you put into your blog and detailed information you present. It’s good to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same outdated rehashed information. Fantastic read! I’ve saved your site and I’m including your RSS feeds to my Google account.

Jean Moroney

I appreciate the appreciation!

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Larry G. Maguire

Weekly articles on LIfe, Work, & The Pursuit of Happiness

Analogical Thinking: A Method For Solving Problems

Analogical Thinking: A Method For Solving Problems

13th May 2019 by Larry G. Maguire 1 Comment

How To Solve Problems By Analogy

The ability to solve problems is an essential skill for our survival and growth in the fast-paced, moment to moment shifting of modern society. No matter what the domain of expertise or work, challenges present themselves at an ever-increasing rate. And so it should be, for what is a life worth living if we never have problems to solve? We must accept that challenges are inherent in life, and so we must use our imagination and ingenuity to find solutions. Creativity and high performance require it. Although solving problems is never as simple as following a linear process, using lateral thinking processes for generating solutions is a skill we can cultivate, and in this week's article, I'm taking a look at a couple of examples of analogical thinking in practice. However, take into account that often switching off entirely from the problem can be the best route to the solution you need.

When I was a kid, growing up in the suburbs of Dublin City, we'd play in the grounds of an old farmhouse that stood in the middle of the housing estate. Cleavers 1 , wild grasses and other naturally occurring local plants grew wildly on the grounds. We called Cleavers, sticklebacks because they had little hooks all over that made them stick to our clothes. We would pull bunches of them and throw them at each other for fun.

Many plants growing wild in the countryside have evolved with this ability to latch on to other material like walls, trees, animal fur, other plants and the backs of children's jumpers. Ordinarily, as adults we don't pass any comment other than perhaps, “isn't that clever”. But in 1941 as George de Mestral 2 walked in the Jura Mountains with his dog, the clever ability of the Xanthium strumarium seed pods 3 to attach themselves to his clothes and his dog's fur captured his interest. Little did he realise, that this determined little seed pod would be the foundation for what would become a multimillion-dollar business.

George de Mestral, Inventor

George de Mestral was born into a middle-class Swiss family in June 1907. His father, Albert was a civil engineer and no doubt had a significant influence on the developing mind of his son, with young George showing his creative ability by designing and patenting a toy aeroplane at age 12. De Mestral attended the highly respected Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland where he studied engineering. Completing his studies, he secured employment in a Swiss engineering company where he honed his technical skills.

De Mestral also enjoyed hunting in the mountains and on one particular occasion in 1941, as the story goes, he was prompted to investigate the means by which those stubborn cockleburs adhered to his clothes. Upon examining the seed pod under a microscope he noticed hundreds of tiny hooks that covered the outer husk of the seed pod. It's likely that de Mestral required many exposures to the stubborn cocklebur to prompt his inquiry, however, given his inventive mind, he somehow made a connection between what he observed and its possible commercial use.

George de Mestral, creator of Velcro hook and loop fastening system used analogical thinking

He thought that if he could somehow employ the principle used by the cocklebur to fabricate a synthetic fastening system, he would have a solution to the problems occurring with conventional fasteners of the time. De Mestral conceptualised what he wanted to create, but coming up with a practical design took considerable time. Clothing manufacturers didn't take him seriously and he encountered many practical challenges in bringing his idea to life. After many attempts, he eventually found a manufacturer in Lyon, France who was willing to work with him and together they combined the toughness of nylon with cotton to create the first working prototype.

With the new material, he was able to recreate the tiny microscopic hooks he’d observed under a microscope all those years before. Proving his concept, he soon after applied and received a patent for his invention and launched his manufacturing business which he named Velcro 4 , a combination of the French words “velours” (velvet) and “crochet” (hook).

It took nearly fifteen years of research before he was finally able to successfully reproduce the natural fastening system he had seen on the Xanthium strumarium seed pods, but he stuck to his idea – a testament to his belief in the solution he had found.

De Mestral's Use Of Analogical Thinking

Despite its widespread use today, Velcro was not an immediate commercial success for de Mestral. However, by the early 1960s and the race to reach the moon, it seems that Velcro was in the right place at the right time. With the developing needs of the aerospace industry and the successful use of Velcro by NASA, the clothing and sportswear industries also realised the possibilities that de Mestral's product presented. Soon Velcro was selling over 60 million meters of hook-and-loop fastener per year, and de Mestral became a multimillionaire.

Whether he realised it or not, de Mestral used what today we term “analogical thinking” or analogical reasoning; the process of finding a solution to a problem by finding a similar problem with a known solution and applying that solution to the current situation.

An  analogy  is a comparison between two objects, or systems of objects, that highlights respects in which they are thought to be similar.  Analogical reasoning  is any type of thinking that relies upon an analogy 5 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

What Is Analogical Thinking?

The world-renowned writer and philosopher, Edward de Bono 6 , creator of the term “lateral thinking”, says that the analogy technique for generating ideas is a means to get some movement going, to start a train of thought. The challenge for us, when presented with a difficult problem, is that we can become hemmed in by traditional habitual thinking. Thinking laterally through the use of analogy helps to bring about a shift away from this habitual thinking.

In his book, Lateral Thinking 7 , first published almost fifty years ago, de Bono suggests that lateral thinking, of which thinking by analogy is an aspect, is the opposite of traditional vertical thinking. Although he also says that both lateral thinking and vertical thinking can work together rather than in opposition.

Thinking by analogy helps to bring about creativity and insight and is a system of thought that can be learned. The analogy is a simple story that becomes an analogy when it is compared to the current problematic condition. The story employed must have a process that can we can follow, that we can easily understand and apply to the present circumstance. For example, you might criticise a tradesperson for creating such a mess in your home, and he may suggest that to make an omelette he has to break some eggs.

Yeah, says you. Just please don't break them all over the good carpet!

Analogical Thinking Experiment

In 1980, Mary Gick and Keith Holyoak at the University of Michigan investigated the role of analogical thinking in psychological mechanisms that underlie creative insight. In their study 8 they suggested that anecdotal reports of creative scientists and mathematicians suggested that their development of new theories often depended on noticing and applying an analogy drawn from different domains of knowledge. Analogies cited included the hydraulic model of the blood circulatory system and the planetary model of the atomic structure of matter.

The fortress story used in analogical thinking experiment

In their experiment, Gick and Holyoak presented subjects first with a military story. In the story, an army General wishes to capture a fortress located in the centre of a country to which there are several access roads. All have been mined so that while small groups of men can pass through safely, a large number will detonate the mines. A full-scale direct attack is therefore impossible. The General’s solution is to divide his army into small groups, send each group to the head of a different road, and have the groups converge simultaneously on the fortress.

Participants are then asked to find a solution to the following medical problem

A doctor is faced with a patient who has a malignant tumour in his stomach. It is impossible to operate on the patient, but unless the tumour is destroyed the patient will die. There is an x-ray that can be used to destroy the tumour but unfortunately, at the required intensity, the surrounding healthy tissue will also be destroyed. At a lower intensity, the rays are harmless to healthy tissue, but they will not affect the tumour either. What type of procedure might be used to destroy the tumour with the rays, and at the same time avoid killing the healthy tissue?

The Results

The researchers were interested to know how participants would represent the analogical relationship between the story and the problem and generate a workable solution. For participants who didn't receive the military story, only 10% managed to generate the solution to the problem. This percentage rose to 30% for those who received the story in advance of the problem. Interestingly, the result climbed to 75% when participants read more than one analogous story.

Results from the study provide experimental evidence that solutions to problems can be generated using an analogous problem from a very different domain. However, the researchers caution against the assumption that solving problems by analogy may not deliver positive results where the problems are more complex.

Success is also dependant on the individual's exposure to similar conditions in the past, with increased exposure likely to yield more consistent results in solving similar problems.

The Apple Analogy

My sons are aged 11 and 12, and they regularly find challenges with mathematics, just like most kids do. Mathematics is an abstract system of thinking and I can understand the difficulty children may have from time to time getting to grips with it. The terminology is alien and they need to build out concepts and schemas for what is essentially a new and complex language.

They are learning how to work with fractions, percentages and ratios and most of the time they navigate their way successfully, but occasionally they get stumped and ask for help. When they do I always bring in the apple analogy.

One maths question asked my son to divide an amount of money between John and Edward in the ratio of 12 to 9 respectively. My son reckoned that wasn't a fair split. I told him John worked harder than Edward and we proceeded.

I asked him first to consider the amount of money as an apple and asked him what we would need to do to share the apple so that John got 12 pieces and Edward got 9. He correctly said, slice the apple into 21 equal pieces, give John 12 and Edward 9. So now, I said, can we split this money up in the same way? We were on the pigs back.

I always use the apple analogy for the kids' maths problems and it works very well.

Final Thoughts

I remember about 10 years ago my business was in the toilet and I was under enormous financial stress. Every day was a fight with myself and everyone around me. Most days I managed things as well as possible, but other days I was beaten. I can safely say, that no amount of input from those who could see what I couldn't, no amount analogical thinking would have helped me. I was in a prolonged state of hyperactivity and awareness of the problems. Neurochemically my brain could simply not operate in my favour. When I look back now I realise that those set of circumstances simply needed to burn themselves out.

Actively trying to solve an apparent problem can often be problematic in itself. By virtue of our focus on the problem, we often can't see the solutions and there's no amount of thinking can relieve us from the predicament. Analogical thinking has a firm place in creative pursuits, however, it can only be successfully employed when we are in a calm and collected state of mind.

Therefore, I believe that our job in performing to the highest level no matter what our domain of expertise, is to cultivate a stable and measured state of mind. In that place, we can encourage access to parts of the mind that lie beyond our conscious thought and receive answers to life's most complex problems.

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Author | Larry G. Maguire

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50 Examples Of Analogies For Critical Thinking

examples of analogies for critical thinking

What Are The Best Examples Of Analogies For Critical Thinking?

by Terry Heick

In our guide to teaching with analogies , we offered ideas, definitions, categories, and examples of analogies.

This post is a more specific version of that article where we focus specifically on types and examples of analogies rather than looking at teaching with analogies more broadly. Below, we offer more than 20 different types of analogies and examples of type of analogy as well–which results in nearly 100 examples of analogies overall.

Note that because an analogy is simply a pattern established by the nature of a relationship between two ‘things,’ there are an infinite number of kinds of analogies. You could, for example, set up an analogy by pairing two objects only loosely connected–brick and road, for example: a brick is to a road as…

Of course, analogies are best solved by creating a sentence that accurately captures the ‘truest and best’ essence of the relationship of the first two items in the analogy. So in the above brick/road example, you might say that ‘bricks used to be used to create roads,’ at which point all kinds of possibilities emerge: Bricks used to be used to create roads as glass used to be used to create bottles, yielding the analogy:

Bricks : Road :: Glass : Bottle

You could also use this in a specific content area–Social Studies, for example:

Bricks : Road :: Pamphlets : Propaganda

Language Arts?

Bricks : Roads :: Couplets : Sonnets? Maybe, but this leaves out the critical ‘used to be…’ bit.

You get the idea. By forcing students to distill one relationship in order to understand another, it’s almost impossible to accurately solve analogies without at least some kind of understanding–unless you use multiple-choice, in which case a lucky guess could do the trick.

Now, that’s a purposely far-fetched example. In most teaching and learning circumstances like courses and classrooms, analogies are used in common forms that are more or less obvious: part to whole, cause and effect, synonym and antonym, etc. This makes them less subjective and creative and easier to score on a multiple-choice question and can reduce the subjectivity of actually nailing down the uncertain relationship between ‘bricks’ and ‘roads.’ It becomes much easier when you use something with a more clear relationship, like ‘sapling is to tree as zygote is to…’

Of course, this misses the genius of analogies: asking students to see–and sometimes even create–the relationship between things rather than ‘choosing’ the ‘type’ of analogy. Analogies are brilliant teaching and learning tools that we use all of the time in everyday life to explain something by explaining something else .

(If you’d like to read more about this idea, I discussed it in some in ‘ Why Questions Are More Important Than Answers .’) And it’s at this point that it feels like exploring how to use analogies for critical thinking might be more interesting than merely offering types of analogies, but for the sake of packaging and time, I’ll finish this post and re-address the ‘analogies for critical thinking’ bit later.

Why Analogies Are Valuable For Learning

In the guide to teaching with analogies shown above, I explained that, “Academic analogies are useful for teaching and learning because they require students to analyze a thing (or things), and then transfer that analysis that analysis to another thing. This kind of transfer requires at least some kind of conceptual grasp–understanding.”

I went on to offer that “This makes them useful for assessment, but they can also be used as an effective learning strategy as well. As students create incorrect analogies, analyze the relationships their analogies are suggesting, and then correct them accordingly, students are grappling with ideas, monitoring and revising their thinking, and otherwise actively consider the often complex relationships between disparate things.”

In fact, we’ve begun using analogies in our TeachThought University courses. They’re genius little tools to both cause and measure understanding. And while there are some common types of analogies that you (and students) will see most commonly, (antonyms, categories, part to whole, cause and effect, etc.), the truth is that unless two objects or ideas represent an entirely unique circumstance that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the universe, there should always be an analogous pairing or counterpart somewhere. They even function strongly as psychology-based critical thinking strategies .

Put another way, there are nearly an infinite number of analogies and an uncountable number of types of analogies. Consider the following:

Father : Pops :: Henry VIII : ______?

Tissue: Kleenex :: ______ : ______?

You could call these ‘slang’ analogies but the latter isn’t really slang. You could say also call them ‘more commonly known as’ analogies or even synonyms but that’s entirely the essence of the relationship either. This is a unique relationship–as so many are. You get the point: That there are an impossible number of things and relationships so there aren’t a set number of ‘types of analogies.’

The question for you, as a teacher, is which are the most helpful for you to cause and measure understanding with students? So for now, we’ve included the most common types of analogies and then added in some less common but still useful types of analogies. We’ve tried to make some simple and some more complex just to demonstrate the range and value of analogies in critical thinking.

Some, I’ve added commentary to. Others, I just included the examples. The general pattern I’ve used is to start with a simple example and then create a more complex analogy.

Note, there may be some disagreement about some of the ‘answers’ here–either from you as a reader or your students. That’s good! If your students are arguing that democracies aren’t actually the ‘opposite’ of a dictatorship, that means they likely at least vaguely grasp each and arguing about the similarities and differences!

What more can you ask for in introducing or reviewing content?

50+ Examples Of Analogies For Critical Thinking

1. Synonym Analogies

Funny : Humorous :: Hardworking : Diligent

Lead : Guide :: Drawing : Illustration

Mom : Mother :: Dog : _______

Beginner : Novice :: Law : ______

2. Antonym Analogies

Night : Day :: Right : Left

Wet : Dry : Hot : Cold

Open: Closed :: Free : ______

Empiricism : ______ :: Small : Big

3. Part/Whole Analogies

Electron: Molecule :: Country : Continent

Toe : Foot :: Finger : Hand

Stars : Galaxy :: Molecules : Object

Data : Scientific Process :: Thesis Statement : ______

4. Cause/Effect Analogies

Spin : Dizzy :: Jump : Elevate

Honesty: Trust :: Light : Plant Growth

Itch : Scratch :: Virus : Cold

Read : Learn :: Try : Improve

Rise of Social Messaging : Demise of Email :: __________: French Revolution

Writing Process : Idea Organization :: Eye Contact : ______

5. Thing/Function Analogies

Broom : Sweep :: Paintbrush : Paint

Freezer: Freeze :: Paper Towel : Wipe

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” : Civil Rights :: ________ : LBGTQ rights

Gravity : Pull :: Conflict : ______

6. Thing/Characteristic Analogies

Democracy : Equality :: Monarchy : One Ruler

Water : Wet :: Concrete : Hard

Mountain : Tall :: Desert : Dry

Sugar : Sweet :: Cheetah : Fast

Water : Wet :: Circles : ______

Wall : Bricks :: Sonnet : Lines

Mountain : Tall :: Globalization : _____

7. Thing/Context Analogies (similar to Part/Whole and other categories of analogies)

Cello : Symphony :: Creek : Forest

Plane : Hangar :: Surfboard : Beach

Field : Farm :: Audience : Arena

Conflict : Story :: Emoji : Texting

8. Example/Type Analogies

Orange : Fruit :: Hydrogen : Element

Kangaroo : Marsupial : Dog :: Mammal

Ford Mustang : Muscle Car :: Subaru BRZ : Sports Car

Deontology : Ethics: Cubism : Art

______ : Immigration Policy :: iPhone : Smartphone

9. Category/Subcategory Analogies

Phylum : Kingdom :: Aisle : Department

Sonnet: Petrarchan Sonnet :: Rose : Red Rose

Shape : Quadrilateral :: _______ : Orbit

10. Object/Classification Analogies

Bowl : Dish :: Sword : Weapon

Cat : Feline :: Dog : Canine

Porsche 911 : Sports Car :: Alligator : Reptile

Rain : Precipitation :: ______ : Rhyme Scheme

12. Fact/Opinion Analogies

Wet : Soaked :: 7 Seconds : Fast

6′ 4″ : Tall :: Awake : Smart

It’s 93 degrees : It’s Hot :: ________ :

13. Step/Process Analogies

Evaporation : Water Cycle :: ______ : Evolution

Test Theory : Scientific Process :: Stir : Make Chocolate Milk

Revision : Writing Process :: ______ :

______ : Sentence Diagramming

14. Problem/Solution Analogies

Tape : Paper Tear :: Knee Scrape : Bandaid

Alliteracy : Habits :: Lack of Cardiovascular Endurance : Lack of Exercise

Climate Change : Reduce Greenhouse Gases :: ________ : Poverty

15. Symbol/Referent Analogies

Peace Sign : Hippies :: Red Cross: Medical Professional

To make that a bit more complex, consider Peace Sign : Vietnam :: _____ : ______ where it could be seen that rather just “The Peace Sign characterized Hippies as…” you instead of “The Peace Sign was seen as a counter-symbol to Vietnam as…”, and so on. The following example is equally complex:

Guillotine: French Revolution :: Faulkner’s use of setting in A Rose for Emily : ________

To answer that, you’d have to know whether or not it was commonly considered for the guillotine to ‘represent’ the Fresh Revolution and then further, exactly how Faulkner used setting in ‘A Rose for Emily.’

16. Producer/Product Analogies

Sheep : Wool :: Milk : Cow

As with others, the first analogy is simple:

Cow : Milk :: Beehive : Honey

The second sets up at simple (Producer/Product) but the second part asks the student to think (and know) more:

Cow: Milk :: Industrialism : _____

Clearly, these can be subjective but if you use this to your advantage (in a debate or discussion, or by asking the student to defend their choices, for example) that’s a good thing. You can also use a multiple-choice format to reduce some of this subjectivity if you need thinks nice and tidy in a lesson or assessment.

17. Noun/Adjective Analogies

Lemon : Yellow :: Snow : White

Flamingo : Pink :: Rhinoceros : Grey

Cardinal : Red :: Irony : ______

18. Task/Subtask Analogies

Kick : Soccer :: Dribble : Basketball

Plan : Prioritize :: Lead : Communicate

Drive : Steer :: Live : Breathe

19. Kinds Of Measurement Analogies

Vegetable Harvest : Bushels :: Liquid : Gallon

Geometric Shape : Degrees :: Marine Distance : Nautical Miles

City : Blocks :: Farms : Acres

20. Finish the Set or Sequence Analogies

Salt : Pepper :: Peas : Carrots

2 : 8 :: 5 : 20

21. Strength & Weakness Analogies

Lighthouse : Brightness :: Flashlight : Portability

Abundant Supply : Solar Energy :: Low Cost : Coal

Potential Profits : Capitalism :: ______ : Artificial Intelligence

Plastic : Pollution :: Greed : ______

22. Spatial Relationship (e.g., Geography) Analogies

South America : North America :: Ireland : ______

Floor : Ceiling :: Conclusion : Introduction

Peanut Butter : Bread :: Chapters : Book Covers

23. Increasing or Decreasing Intensity Analogies

Cool : Cold :: Warm : Hot

Aggressive : Fierce :: Amused : Elated

Instability : Turmoil :: Change : Revolution

Speed of Sound : Speed of Light :: ______ : Gammar Ray Bursts

24. Thing/Group Analogies (similar to Part/Whole Analogies)

Fish : School :: Lion : Pride

Flock : Birds :: Pack : Wolves

People : Community :: Tree : Forest

25. Rhyme Analogies

Jump : Bump :: Wire : Fire

Ship : Blip :: Stop : Lop

About The Author

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Integration and Implementation Insights

Integration and Implementation Insights

A community blog and repository of resources for improving research impact on complex real-world problems

Harnessing analogies for creativity and problem solving

By Christian Schunn


What is an analogy? How can analogies be used to work productively across disciplines in teams?

We know from the pioneering work of Kevin Dunbar (1995), in studying molecular biology labs, that analogies were a key factor in why multidisciplinary labs were much more successful than labs composed of many researchers from the same backgrounds. What is it about analogies that assists multi- and interdisciplinary work?

The advice that follows comes from a decade of research involving intensive analyses of hundreds of hours of interdisciplinary science and engineering teams, following the minute-by-minute processes of the teams, and using advanced statistical techniques to look for robust patterns in behavior over time and across teams. In general, our research has shown that creative teams generate twice as many ideas per unit time when they use analogies than when they do not.

So, what is an analogy? It is the accessing and transferring of elements from familiar categories or situations to the current problem. We all use analogies such as: ‘works like magic’, ‘stinks like a rotten egg’, or ‘hit-or-miss like a risqué joke’.

These prior situations might be a comparison to a relatively similar past experience of the team member, or might involve referencing experiences from a vastly different technical or everyday situation.
 As an example in the context of engineering, a team member raised the following analogy to an everyday experience in designing an unsupported tube to transport liquid: “the stuff you make Venetian blinds of for example… they can be bent.”

Note that analogy is a cognitive process in which the problem solvers reason through the relationship between the prior experience and the current problem. The reasoning process produces a number of inferences for the team that can serve many purposes. Analogies can help brainstorming sessions by:

When a team needs to resolve uncertainties without a clear way forward, raising new analogies can bring possible solutions.

Productive use of analogies is useful for stimulating both divergent and convergent thinking processes and can combat two major team problems, those of group think and confirmation bias. On the divergent side, group think is getting stuck on a shared mediocre idea, instead of harnessing the breadth of knowledge in the team. On the convergent side, confirmation bias is preferring evidence in favor of the current plan, and failing to seek evidence that different team members have access to that points to flaws in the current favored plan.

Analogies can also reduce the fixation effects of starting with a non-functional prior solution. Even expert designers will fixate when given an example of what a solution should not do, but the harm is erased when designers are given a range of analogies to consider.

Analogies can produce disagreements among team members in several productive ways, for example about the aptness of the analogy at all, the way the analogy applies to the current situation, and whether inferences can be used. In our research this effect was found for productive kinds of disagreements (disagreements about the task and processes to be used), and not for the unproductive kind of disagreement (conflicts of personality or personal attacks).

Interestingly, the physical environment surrounding the team can also influence how often teams use analogies. Looking at highly detailed artifacts ( e.g. , prototypes or models) appears to suppress the rate of analogizing relative to having an open conversation or looking at more abstract sketches. Of course, getting very concrete and detail-oriented has an important place in teamwork, especially multidisciplinary teamwork. But there is a time and a place for it, and it can be helpful to put away the physical artifacts from time to time.

What have your experiences been with analogies? Can you provide additional examples of how they have been helpful?

Reference and related papers

Ball, L. J. and Christensen, B. T. (2009). Analogical reasoning and mental simulation in design: Two strategies linked to uncertainty resolution. Design Studies , 30 , 2: 169–186.

Chan, J. and Schunn, C. D. (2015). The impact of analogies on creative concept generation: Lessons from an in-vivo study in engineering design. Cognitive Science , 39, 1: 126-155.

Chan, J., Dow, S. P. and Schunn, C. D. (2015). Do the best design ideas (really) come from conceptually distant sources of inspiration? Design Studies , 36: 31-58.

Christensen, B. T. and  Schunn, C. D. (2007). The relationship of analogical distance to analogical function and pre-inventive structure: The case of engineering design. Memory & Cognition , 35, 1: 29-38.

Dunbar, K. (1995). How scientists really reason: Scientific reasoning in real-world laboratories. In R. J. Sternberg and J. Davidson (Eds.).  Mechanisms of insight . MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, Untied States of America, pp: 365-395.

Linsey, J., Tseng, I., Fu, K., Cagan, J., Wood, K. and Schunn, C. D. (2010). A study of design fixation, its mitigation and perception in engineering design faculty. Journal of Mechanical Design , 132, 4: 041003.

Paletz, S. B. F., Schunn, C. D. and Kim, K. (2013). The interplay of conflict and analogy in multidisciplinary teams. Cognition , 126, 1: 1-19.

Biography: Christian Schunn is a Senior Scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center and a Professor of Psychology, Learning Sciences and Policy, and Intelligent Systems at the University of Pittsburgh. He directs a number of research projects studying expert engineering and science teams and the effects of new tools designed to increase innovation. He also leads research projects that apply this knowledge to building innovative technology-supported STEM curricula, and studying factors that influence student and teacher STEM learning.

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13 thoughts on “harnessing analogies for creativity and problem solving”.

Hello, and thank you for this post which is very relevant to my research.

I am currently pursuing a PhD on the topic of pattern literacy in support of systemic intervention, and in particular developing a working theory of the pattern developing a working theory of the pattern as mediator and connector, as well as tools and methods for trans-disciplinary/systemic interventions.

I make the hypothesis that the pattern is a shareable unit of meaning-making which can play the role of boundary object, i.e. object of shared inquiry and mediation.

I am very interested in the cognitive and psychological processes involved. Analogy and other types of semantic connections are key in this context, because they can help connect different ‘facets’ of similar patterns.

I am therefore glad to find here many references that can expand my view and approach, and looking forward to exchange more on the topic.

In particular, and in relation to Joseph Guillaume’s question and other post on the blog, I would like to identify the different types of patterns, and look into frameworks that can help me do so, such as the OODA loop*, the pragmatic cycle and semiotic approach of Peirce, Luhmann’s systems theory.

*Editor: This refers to the decision cycle of observe, orient, decide, act.

A few thoughts.

1) one might think about a pattern as a kind of schema for a situation. Analogies are helpful for creating such schemata (the pattern that is shared by the two situations) 2) I am reminded of Design Patterns in the software engineering literature. They have made a science of thinking of patterns in a way that guides problem solving.

Discussion copied from the Linked In group Systems Thinking Network:

Francisco Barreto: Thinking of Douglas Hofstadter… His works on the role of Analogy-Making in human thought..

Christian Schunn: Yes, a number of scholars over the years have written about the role of analogies in creativity. Hofstadter’s main contribution was in providing some early thinking on the mechanisms by which the mind could do that work.

William Donaldson, PhD: There is also a caution that needs to be added/considered. Problems and limitations can be carried over from the analogous root to the new idea

Christian Schunn: Analogy is a kind of induction, not a kind of deduction. There is no guarantee of a workable solution and thus better thought of as a divergent thinking tool rather than a decision making tool.

Jay Sorenson: Can brainstorming arrive at conclusions in excess of the intellectual capabilities of the individual participants? Are the conclusions limited to some relevant range. That is to say can a group of plumbers prove or disprove the correctness of string theory?

Christian Schunn: On the one hand, Wisdom of the Crowd research suggests that even moderate collections of individuals can be remarkably smart (e.g., suggest which stocks to select more effectively than top stock brokers). On the other hand, most groups tend to use poor information sharing processes and so act less smart than expected. In other words, the process used by the group matters a lot.

Jean-Louis Baudoin Why always talk about problem solving? What about developing the Thinking skills that AVOID problems upstream?

Christian Schunn: Great point! In fact, expert engineers use analogies to anticipate problems that a particular possible solution might produce.

S Anders Christensson Are analogies to be considered as puzzle-bits? First you seek bits that maybe corners, then add-ons to build frames. Then understand all red parts, blue parts and so on. Or the analogy can work as a envisioned pattern where ever it maybe in the puzzle. Kind of induction to use bits to contribute and build a larger hole?

Christian Schunn: That is a lovely analogy about analogy!

Ray Gallon I agree, but discovered that some people (includes one of my daughters) are are actually incapable of learning by analogy. I never knew such a condition existed.

Christian Schunn: I would be amazed if there existed a human who could not learn by analogy—this would be worthy of publishing in Nature or Science, similar to finding a human who didn’t need oxygen or water. There has been extensive investigation of learning by analogy. Of the many variations on how analogies can be presented, sometimes there are individual differences in which ways of presenting analogies are best. For example, some learners learn more when the analogy is spelled out in greater detail and other learners learn more when they have to do more of the mapping work themselves. Interestingly, US math teachers and their Asian counterparts both use analogies equally often, but the US teachers frequently use analogies in unhelpful ways (e.g., by comparing a math concept to another topic the students also don’t understand).

Ray Gallon Well, I can only comment on both what I observed and what the school diagnosed when she was 16. Obviously she understands them on some level, but they don’t help her to learn. Paradoxicaly she is super smart at pattern recognition (visual) which you would think was connected. She might be able to learn maths by analogy, but more literary out philosophical notions need to be explicitly explained for her to get them. She’s now finishing university do it hasn’t hindered her. I should mention we are in Spain (Catalonia). Culture also plays a role.

Thanks Gabriele, this exchange is very useful.

Hi Christian, thanks for the article.

I think analogies have been with us for a long time and used in communicating, teaching and conveying concepts, ideas and meaning to others. There are numerous forms found in all sorts of literature and language.

They are powerful for creative thinking if there is sufficient alignment between your problem and the outside or given concept – then its reasonable to port across useful elements to fashion an idea.

I see people doing this all the time, we generally aren’t conscious of this or use it deliberately. The skill of the facilitator in the group is to apply techniques in a way to elicit the main elements of an analogy reliably and consistently to get predictable results. Ie if the team is employed to solve problems, it has to solve problems!

Famous works from the folk that developed Synectics is interesting – quite hard to get through their work to fashion a method, but worth it. They had 4 types of analogous thinking. Have you seen this or come across it Christian?

Regards, Nat.

I have heard of Synetics although have not directly worked with someone specifically implementing that exact approach. There are a number of design consulting groups that make formal use of analogy or something like it. That it appears so regularly in their work suggests 1) a shared experience with the power of analogy AND 2) a shared experience that some facilitation is required (otherwise why need a consulting group to help with it).

Best, -Chris

It may be worth observing that analogies also serve as a flexible means of building understanding and picking apart complex problems by revealing and illustrating patterns or schemas which can be mapped to other, perhaps simpler or already known situations. Obviously, along with all other strengths, analogy is just as practical in individual work as it is in team context discussed in the article.

BTW. I completely agree with the broader and more encompassing meaning of analogy, inclusive of every type of correspondence in structures, behaviours and functions. Despite my interest in systems science,I ‘m not familiar with term homology in context of design.

The literature on schema learning has suggested that analogies are a powerful way of building new schemata (the category of things shared by the example).

Analogies can be useful to individuals, but they are more powerful for groups. Individuals have trouble retrieving useful analogies on their own. In addition, analogies are an important part of interdisciplinary communication.

Does it follow that analogy used for problem solving is a form of slow, more deliberate thinking, and that its fast, instinctive equivalent is the application of a tacit pattern/schema? If so, then using analogies for schema learning involves distilling key patterns that can be internalised for everyday use? Do you have an opinion about value of directly use analogies in problem solving vs. using them to build schemas that are applied in a second step?

A number of theorists (e.g., John Anderson of CMU) have made exactly that proposals: analogies distill key patterns for more rapid later use. There is some disagreement about whether it is via building up schema (a way of categorizing) or creating of rules (a way of acting). I think there is good evidence for both.

Anderson, J. R., Fincham, J. M., & Douglass, S. (1997). The role of examples and rules in the acquisition of a cognitive skill. Journal of experimental psychology: learning, memory, and cognition, 23(4), 932.

Gick, M. L., & Holyoak, K. J. (1983). Schema induction and analogical transfer. Cognitive psychology, 15(1), 1-38.

Thanks! The references are much appreciated.

Terrific article Christian. Thank you for sharing this. I think you’re right that analogies are low-hanging fruit when it comes to creativity and problem definition/solving. Another related topic is the difference between an analogy and a homology. Where an analogy refers to a “correspondence in function,” a homology is “a likeness in structure” (or set of causal relationships). In systems thinking terms, we might call these “kernel structures” or archetypes.

For more on the value of homologies, you might want to read this short article: https://thesystemsthinker.com/how-is-this-similar-to-that/

Interesting. I had not yet seen that distinction being made. Within the psychology literature, both correspondence of function and of structure would be labeled analogy, since both invoke similar psychological processes. There was a debate back in the 1990s about whether correspondence of causal structures had special status, but in the end that didn’t get much empirical support.

You might also be interested in relational reasoning more generally, which includes analogy, anomaly, antimony, and antithesis. Sometimes how things are different is just as interesting as how things are the same. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10648-016-9370-6

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Journal of Experimental Child Psychology

Young children’s analogical problem solving: gaining insights from video displays.

The issue was how toddlers solve problems by gaining insights from video displays.

2.5- but not 2-year-olds transferred a strategy from a video to solve a problem.

Transfer was evident only when the video illustrated a problem goal structure.

An isolated action in video not embedded in a goal structure did not yield transfer.

This study examined how toddlers gain insights from source video displays and use the insights to solve analogous problems. The sample of 2- and 2.5-year-olds viewed a source video illustrating a problem-solving strategy and then attempted to solve analogous problems. Older, but not younger, toddlers extracted the problem-solving strategy depicted in the video and spontaneously transferred the strategy to solve isomorphic problems. Transfer by analogy from the video was evident only when the video illustrated the complete problem goal structure, including the character’s intention and the action needed to achieve a goal. The same action isolated from the problem-solving context did not serve as an effective source analogue. These results illuminate the development of early representation and processes involved in analogical problem solving. Theoretical and educational implications are discussed.

“What if?” – A powerful creativity and possibility thinking technique

Freewriting – Subconscious creative technique

C. jung’s “16 associations” test as a problem solving method, dream journaling as a technique for finding creative solutions.

Analogy technique

1. Authors: W. Gordon (1961), E. de Bono (1970).

W. Gordon began to use analogy as an effective method for creative problem solving in his Synectics. In the book “Synectics: the development of creative capacity” (1961), four types of analogies were proposed: direct, symbolic, personal and fantastic. As an independent one, the Analogy technique by Edward de Bono in his book “Lateral Thinking” (1970).

3. Description

The analogy technique is based on identifying typical features of the main problem, finding objects, situations or places which also have these features; and using them as mental stimuli to solve the main problem. In the broad sense, the method is the application of useful knowledge, technology, or facts from one field to another. To use an analogy technique is to make an implied comparison between two things, processes or fields that are essentially dissimilar but are shown through the analogy to have some similarity.

4. Main functions

1. Analogy may be an important strategy and heuristic for dealing with the uncertainty that occurs in problem solving. 2. The analogy technique is one of the most universal and at the same time simple heuristic techniques for searching for new ideas and original solutions to creative problems. Analogies are used to force us to look at a situation in a fresh way and generate further ideas. 3. The method serves as an effective way of enhancing creative thinking and imagination, a technique for eliminating psychological inertia, overcoming mental barriers and stereotypes.

5. Methodological and theoretical grounds

At its most basic, an analogy is a comparison of two objects, processes, situations, or actions to show their similarities. This is the specific comparison of two things that are essentially dissimilar but are shown through the analogy to have some similarity. At large, an analogy is an abstract parallel between two quite different objects, processes or relationships. Besides an analogy implies likeness or parallelism in relations rather than in appearance or qualities. Analogical cognition is the centre of all mental tools, embraces all cognitive processes and manifests itself as analogical reasoning and figure of speech. Analogical reasoning is fundamental to human thought and a comparison between things that have similar features, often used for the purpose of explanation or clarification. Analogy helps us to link an unfamiliar or a new idea with common and familiar objects. Analogical thinking is what we do when we use information from one domain, to help solve a problem in another domain. Creative problem solving. Experts often use analogies during the process of problem solving, and analogies have been involved in numerous scientific discoveries. At once analogies are widely recognized as playing an important heuristic role, as aids to discovery. They play a significant role in problem solving, as well as creativity, invention, prediction. The analogy is an effective technique and tool to help in creative problem solving. Thus, analogies were central to the earlier forms of Synectics, which were based on the use of a direct, personal, symbolic and fantastic analogy. For example, the technique of direct analogy or analogy from nature is based on the idea that every problem, however big or small, has already been solved in some way by nature. In addition, the personal analogy involves envisioning yourself as the product or the problem and role-playing. Making analogies to some other field can help to look at things differently, clarify a problem and get creative ideas. Therefore, it is essential to look for analogies between elements that have apparently nothing to do with one another by asking questions like: “What else is like this object, process or problem?”, “What works effectively in similar fields” and then copy what works. Answers to these questions can lead to the transfer of a potential solution to the real problem.

6.  Fundamental principles

1. The principle of the Unity of the World. The Principle of Universal Connection. Everything is connected with everything else. 3. The principle of similarity, isomorphism and universality of the laws and structures of reality.

1. Define the problem. Identify the root cause of the problem. 2. Generate analogies. Think of an analogy between your problem and something else. Try to think of an unrelated object: thing, process, event, and field. Choose an analogy from nature in its widest sense. Select an action you can compare your situation to. Examples: Going on holiday, Driving a car, Cooking a meal… Use the root cause to generate a list of analogies. 3. Find similarities. Establish an analogy based between the subject and objects of analogy. Describe the analogies, their positive features, how it works, how it is used. Use your imagination and have some fun with it. Elaborate on the analogy by listing details such as functions or uses. Make a list of useful properties of the various objects-analogy. 4. Select any of the analogies that look interesting, preferably, where the objects are from different domains. List short descriptions or details about the chosen analogy. 5. Use description and similarities to generate ideas. Use this description to suggest ideas relevant to your problem. What features we can use directly? Ask yourself what insights or potential solutions the analogy suggests. Generate new interesting ideas and brainstorm creative solutions.

Forced Analogy or forced relationships

The forced analogy is a very useful method of generating ideas. Forcing relationships is one of the most powerful ways to develop new insights and new solutions. 1. Define the problem. 2. Choose an object at random and see what relationships you can force. A useful way of developing the relationships is to have a selection of objects with pictures to help you generate ideas. 3. Compare the problem with something else that has little or nothing in common and gain new insights as a result. 4. Force a relationship between almost anything, and get new insights.

9. Advantages

1. The universality and effectiveness of the method, its accessibility, simplicity and ease of implementation. 2. An effective way to overcome the inertia of thinking, a tool for enhancing imagination and creativity.

10. Disadvantages

The success of the method directly depends on the degree of erudition and imagination of the participants. The analogy technique is closely connected with the methods of associations , bisociations, and metaphors.

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