Using Analogies Effectively

My best advice for using analogies effectively? Don’t.

Analogies are really bad ways to make arguments. Which sucks, because we love to use them. Sometimes, an idea seems so evidently wrong that we struggle to articulate how and why it’s wrong. So instead we find another, similar idea whose wrongness is equally evident and we compare the two. The potential upside of this argument is that the other person finds your similar idea so evidently wrong that they are forced to reconsider their own position.

Analogies are really hard to do well. They need to be short, simple, and pack a lot of punch in order to be effective. Why? The success of your analogy relies on correspondence: first, on a logical level, there has to be a taut logical connection between the initial argument and your analogy. Second, on an emotional level, the wrongness of your proposed analogy must be as evident to the other person as it is to you.

Since emotional resonance is what we’re looking for when we construct an analogy, we usually get that part right. However, the strength of the logical connection between their argument and your analogy relies on simplicity. Because no two situations are ever perfectly (or even substantially) analogous, the more complex the argument, the more likely your analogy is to have a logical breakdown. It only takes one glaring non-correspondence to sink an analogy. So while good analogies must feel intuitive, they must also be well thought-out.

In addition to being intuitive, a good analogy will also be subtle. The great thing about analogies is that they don’t actually make a direct argument against a position; they place another idea alongside, a sort of flanking maneuver. (This is why we see so many bad analogies: people would rather press a quick and dirty analogy into service than face the argument head-on.) The analogy’s strength is it’s ability to “sneak up” on someone and make their own common sense argue the case for you. Your analogy should be as commonplace as possible, something everyone would accept, and should be completely unrelated to what you’re actually arguing about. If people see words or concepts in your analogy that alert them to the fact that you’re making an argument, the potential for a “sneak attack” will be nullified.

Analogies can be incredibly powerful, but in order to be so they must be well-crafted. If you have the time to prepare an important argument or statement, it’s worth attempting. But if you’re in a conversational debate in person or online, you’re better off trying to build a real counterargument instead of wasting your breath with a poorly-conceived analogy.

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2 thoughts on “Using Analogies Effectively

  1. Pingback: Meme Analysis: Life Jackets = Condoms? | Keep Your Eye on the Ball

  2. Dan says:

    This seems counterintuitive to me. I understand having an aversion to bad analogies, particularly where they are so ubiquitous. But as humans, our highest levels of understanding are made by analogizing and distinguishing. Whether we speak of law or philosophy or literature, analogies and distinctions are how we find our way. They are more than a technique of rhetoric; they are central to the way we process information. My advice would not be, “don’t analogize” but rather: don’t analogize to something unless you are willing to equate the things being analogized in a really meaningful way. Weak ties are a waste of time.

    Like with the life jackets and condoms, the reason it doesn’t work is that the two are distinct even at the most basic level of purpose. Yes, they are both intended to prevent something, but at the core of the analogy it’s not so much life jackets and condoms that are being analogized, as it is drowning and a having a baby. And that’s why the analogy is absurd. Essentially, they are trying to say that destroying life and creating it are the same thing.

    There was an article in the WSJ a few months back basically arguing that the ability to analogize and distinguish is the preeminent skill of the modern age, and I think that resonates pretty strongly. I just wouldn’t want people to shy away from such an important skill simply because a lot of other people are really bad at it.

    [on a side note, I really dig this WP theme. Nice.]

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