Understanding the generative capacity of analogies as a tool for explanation



Psychological studies have typically portrayed analogical reasoning as a process of schema transfer from a familiar domain of understanding to a problem situation. These studies have usually examined analogical reasoning in contexts where (a) individuals possess or have been provided with appropriate, problem-specific schema, (b) the nature of the problem and/or solution is fairly well defined, and (c) ideal analogies are provided or suggested by an outside source. This study examines analogical reasoning in contexts where understanding is generated from loosely organized, incomplete prior knowledge rather than transferred from a well-structured domain of understanding. In addition, participants were asked to create, apply, and modify their own analogies—as opposed to applying a given analogy—as a heuristic for constructing, evaluating, and modifying their explanations for a particular scientific phenomena. The results provide empirical support for the generative properties of analogies; that is, analogies can stimulate new inferences and insight. Furthermore, under specific conditions, individuals can productively harness the generative capacity of their own analogies to advance their conceptual understanding of scientific phenomena.