Analogical Thinking: A Method For Solving Problems

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 in which we find ourselves, challenges present to us 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 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 these methods. However, you should take into account that often, switching off entirely from the problem can be the 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 3to 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
George de Mestral

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.

Analogical Thinking. George de Mestral's 1957 Hook and Loop Patent Application
George de Mestral’s 1957 Patent Application

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
Using analogy to solve problems

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.


Originally published at Larry G. Maguire.