Monday, April 13, 2009

The Problem with Analogies

As I’ve explained before I tend to think in analogies. If I can take a complex concept and express it in terms that are more familiar to me I can wrap my mind around it a little quicker. I’ve also found that I tend to do the opposite as well. I use analogies to explain things that I understand to people who don’t. For the most part I believe that analogies are very effective, but they do have their limitations.
No analogy is a perfect analog of something else. At some point the analogy will break down or even be counter productive.
Secondly, sometimes the analog is just as or even more confusing to your target audience than the initial subject you are trying to explain.
I recently read two books on the subject of human decision making ability. Both of them uses analogies and real life examples to make their points. One was very effective and the other was not. In Why we Make Mistakes, early I the first chapter the author tells a story about commercial airline pilots who got so hung up on the trivial details that they literally flew their plane into the ground. The author referred back to this problem several time in the book and showed a similar pattern of people figuratively flying their plane into the ground.
Even though I’m not a pilot I felt that this analogy was very effective. Most of us can relate to a situation when we’ve been hung up on minor details and the big details have been neglected. Hallinan didn’t overuse the metaphor either. He just reminded us of it periodically to show that we can forgot very important details while trying to multi-task. All in all I thought the use of analogies in this book was very effective.
In start contrast to Why We Make Mistakes is How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer . The first couple chapters go extremely in depth into a football analogy. I don’t play football or watch it. I have a basic knowledge of the rules. However, Lehrer obviously assumed that his readers would love and understand football just as much as he does. In an attempt to explain that quarterbacks have to make split-second decisions he went way too far into details about different type of plays, scouting procedures, and many other rules that most football viewers would understand, but just went completely over my head. The only point he was trying to make was that in the heat of the game the quarterback doesn’t have time to weight all the pros and cons of each potential decision. They frequently have to react based on emotion. I get that. I didn’t need two chapters of confusing football analogies to make that point. As I started chapter 3 I put the book down when I saw that this book was becoming more about football than it was about human decision making.
So, analogies can be very effective as long as you don’t go too deep into them and as long as the analogy is still something with which your target audience is familiar

1 comment:

  1. Well, it's nice to that you know your End Zone from a whole a hole in the ground. Is there a book about mixing your metaphors, or should I write it?