Dissecting a Useful Metaphor

Cordele Glass, M.A. ’18 holds a graduate degree in Positive Developmental Psychology and Evaluation from Claremont Graduate University. He works as an Outdoor Adventure Guide, Teambuilding Facilitator, and Positive Psychology Coach in Southern California. You can read more on his website.

Metaphors can be found everyday in virtually every available context — home, school, work, doctor’s office, or in traffic. If you will recall from elementary school literature lessons, a metaphor is a comparison without using “like” or “as” (e.g. The angry child was on fire with rage). This rhetorical technique has proved to be useful beyond creating vivid descriptions in literature. Metaphor has made its way into the toolbox of therapists, teachers, designers, and coaches tasked with helping individuals change the way they understand and approach the world. Why is this the case? Below I’ll outline some of aspects of metaphor that make it so useful for changing one’s approach to life.

The Anatomy of Analogy

A metaphor is fundamentally a type of analogy. An analogy is any comparison of two or more things that are neither completely similar nor completely different, in which some form of similarity is recognized and compared. People use this everyday when gossiping, giving a review of a performance, or anytime some type of comparison must be made. Analogy use underlies many skills and processes that are essential for interacting well with one’s environment such as emotion regulation, communication, problem solving, and developing coherence. Some scholars suggest that emotions cannot even be conveyed without the use of metaphor and analogy (my heart is broken, I’m all shook up, I’m on top of the world). Agents of change that want to help people express emotions with more detail, communicate more effectively, or solve complex problems with more ease can use analogies to change the way people understand all of these situations and many others like them. So what is an analogy made of?

Analogs and Mapping

A key aspect to any successful analogy is its deconstruction into component parts. The individual pieces of any given analogy is known as an “analog”. For example in the metaphor “my computer is a japanese bullet train!” there are many different components that could be considered an analog such as the materials of which the computer and train are made, the location of the train and computer, the size, the weight, the cost, etc. In this case the relevant analog is the speed of each item. In a successful analogy the identification of an appropriate analog is followed by “analogical transfer”, also known as mappingin which you compare a second analog to the first. By mapping one analog onto another you can draw inferences based on their similarities.

If we want a metaphor to work we must take our first analog (known as a “source analog”) and map it onto our second analog (known as the “target analog”). In our example the source analog is the speed of the bullet train, and the target analog is the speed of the computer. If you correctly identified “bullet train speed” as my source analog and “computer speed” as my target analog, and you understand “bullet train speed” to be very fast, then you can infer that my computer is very fast. This inference was made without any description of my computer.

Analogical Depth

An astute reader will recognize that the speed of a computer and the speed of a bullet train are two very different kinds of speed. The train moves through physical space and the computer is likely using lots of RAM without moving an inch from its location. This discrepancy is know as “analogical depth”. An analogically shallow comparison looks only at surface features, for example “my faux fur coat is like a rabbit” references only the physical surface features of each item.

Deeper analogies refer to more structural characteristics of the two analogs. For example, in the analogy “My university’s new student policy is a dumpster fire” there are absolutely no overlapping physical or superficial features, but a comparison can still be made, and an inference about the target analog can still be drawn. Shallow analogies are much easier to generate and understand, and people tend to generate shallow analogies when asked to compare two given things. A skilled coach or therapist can make use of deeper analogies to help their clients understand the underlying structures of their relationships, their problems, and their goals.

Analogical Distance

In addition to analogical depth, masters of metaphor understand how far away their sources are from their targets. “Analogical Distance refers to how similar the source analog and the target analog are in terms of their domain. Dr. Kevin Dunbar of Dartmouth College outlined three categories of analogy in terms of their degree of domain separation. “Long-distance” describes a source drawn from a very different domain (e.g., watercoloring and accounting). “Regional” refers to a source mapped from a similar domain (e.g., Psychotherapy to Counseling), and “local” maps a target to a source in the same domain (e.g., Education to Education).

The education and expertise of anyone interpreting an analogy has a strong interaction with how effective an analogy’s distance might be. Distance can be very effective if interpreters have some knowledge about the two disparate domains, but the more unfamiliar a domain is, the more difficulty one will have with mapping the distant analogs — especially if the analogy is particularly deep. More generally, analogical distance is important because if your domains are too close the analogy risks being redundant or uninformative, too far and the analogy risks being esoteric or irrelevant.

Help with Mapping

Understanding these different aspects of analogy is much more than an intellectual exercise in pedanticism. Researchers have found that using new analogies can make significant impacts in creative problem solving, but only when the mapping process is explicitly facilitated by someone who understands the utility of the analogy.

Over several empirical investigations Gick and Holyoak asked people to solve problems after reading about how others solved problems that had similar fundamental features. They found no evidence that memorizing or summarizing relevant analogs led to appropriate mapping or improved problem solving. In contrast, when analogs were suggested and a trainer encouraged participants to map analogs onto each other, the subjects developed a converging mental model which predicted successful mapping and improved problem solving. In other words, encouraging people to use analogies as tools for problem solving helped the participants more than merely giving them the analogy alone.

With all of the above considered we can see that analogies are useful because they help us to explain and understand the world around us in new terms. They do this by expanding our repertoire of mental models. Analogies are made up of analogs, and mapping a source analog onto a target analog can help people draw new inferences and create new mental models of the world around them. Analogies can be deep or shallow, long or short, but even the best analogy becomes more useful when a trained professional helps to explain exactly why one situation may be useful in explaining and understanding another. In my own work as an experiential educator and coach, analogies are the swift wind beneath my outstretched wings.


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