December 15, 2014

Leverage analogies

Using analogies can help you approach new, unfamiliar problems creatively, but they can also be constraining. To sidestep this limitation, understand your assumptions and look for alternative analogies.

Analogies can help you approach unfamiliar problems

Facing an unfamiliar problem, using an analogy (or its close cousin, the metaphor) can help you make progress. For instance, consider the obesity problem and society’s inability to cure it. Yale’s David Katz has recently suggested to treat health as wealth and obesity as drowning. This helps open the door to health management (we don’t spend our entire wealth in one go, neither should we destroy our health capital) and a different approach to managing obesity, not as a disease that needs to be treated but as something that requires prevention.

But analogies can be too constraining

Consider how society’s idea of dealing with cancer is to wage a war on it. In this image, the disease is an opponent. However, this doesn’t have to be: epidemiologist Roberta Ness argues that we should also explore situations where we treat the disease as a neighbor or, perhaps, even a friend. Indeed, she points out that good fences make good neighbors, so do we really need to eradicate cancer or would containing it be just as effective? The idea sounds that it is deserving enough to at least be considered, but if we are focused on our war analogy, we might miss it altogether. Indeed, analogies can lead to fixation or tunnel vision.

One problem with analogies is that they can be triggered by minute details. For instance, Stanford psychologists Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky asked people to think about how reduce crime rates. To some people, they presented crime a virus infecting a city; to others, as a wild beast preying on a city. The difference between the two descriptions was just a few words but that led people to think in widely divergent ways.

The virus image led people to propose ways to understand where the virus was coming from (diagnosing) and implementing preventive measures, social reforms, and educational campaigns. In contrast, the beast image led people to propose to capture and kill or cage it: concretely, people suggested a bigger police force and more jail sentences. Neither approach is necessarily better than the other; the problem is that once we start focusing on one, we might miss the other.

Understand your assumptions and look for alternatives

So, while analogies can be useful, they can be too constraining. Borrowing from my friend Pol Spanos (when he talks about intuition), they are good servants but terrible masters. My advice is that you should step back from your assumptions periodically and think of alternative ways to frame your problem. If you are using an analogy or metaphor, consider brainstorming with other people to identify alternative images to which you can compare it.


Ness, R. B. (2010). “Fear of failure: Why American science is not winning the war on cancer.” Annals of epidemiology 20(2): 89-91.

Thibodeau, P. H. and L. Boroditsky (2011). “Metaphors we think with: The role of metaphor in reasoning.” PLoS One 6(2): e16782.