Analogical reasoning is a method of information processing that compares similarities between new and understood concepts, then uses those similarities to understand the new concept. It is a form of inductive reasoning because it strives to provide understanding of what is likely to be true, rather than deductively proving something as fact. This method can be used by children and adults as a way to learn new information or as part of a persuasive argument.
Analogical reasoning is fundamental to human thought and, arguably, to some nonhuman animals as well. Historically, analogical reasoning has played an important, but sometimes mysterious, role in a wide range of problem-solving contexts. The explicit use of analogical arguments, since antiquity, has been a distinctive feature of scientific, philosophical and legal reasoning.
The process of analogical reasoning begins with a person determining the target domain or new idea to be learned or explained. It is then compared to a general matching domain or idea that is already well understood. The two domains must be sufficiently similar to make a valid and substantive comparison. Specific qualities that belong to the matching domain are chosen, then related elements in the target domain are sought to tie the two domains together. For example, the effect of food on the human body may be an analogy to the effect of gasoline on a car because both are responsible for the proper functioning of the entities.
Analogical reasoning is based on the brain’s ability to form patterns by association. The brain may be able to understand new concepts more easily if they are perceived as part of a pattern. If a new concept is compared to something the brain already knows, the brain is more likely to store the new information more easily.
The study of the process and effectiveness of analogical reasoning has applications in many fields. Because analogies demonstrate the likelihood of similarities rather than actually proving them, lawyers can use analogical arguments during cases that do not have much evidence. Such an argument indicates a shared similarity between two ideas or objects, then uses that shared similarity to argue that the ideas are likely to have other things in common as well. For example, a lawyer may form an analogy between his client and a previous court case for the same crime in which the person was found not guilty. Because the circumstances of the charges are similar, a lawyer will argue that the results should also be similar.
The field of science also uses this type of reasoning, but it is used to come up with new concepts rather than persuasion. Scientists will often compare a proven scientific process with an unproven one to form hypotheses on which to base new research. They may think that because two processes are similar in one way, they are more likely to have more things in common.
Psychologists often focus on the cognitive aspects of reasoning. They may perform research to determine how and why the brain retains information through analogies. Psychologists may also study the differences between how children and adults use them.
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