Mixing Memory

Political Analogies

It’s time for another reposting of something I wrote on the old blog. Laziness reigns again. This is a post on research on political analogies, originally posted on March 29, 2005. If it looks like it’s starting in the middle, that’s because it is. I left out the beginning of the post because it had to do with some nastiness in an analogy-laden post on a conservative blog. I see no reason to rehash all that nonsense. So, without further ado, political analogies.

The Basics of Analogy

First the basics. I may have said all of this before in more detail, but I don’t really expect people to go back and read old posts, so I’ll say it again. Analogies generally consist of two components: the target, about which we are trying to say something, and the source (or base), which we are using to say something about the target. For example, in Rutherford’s classic atom-solar system analogy, the solar system, which was at the time a better-known domain, is used as the source, and the atom, the lesser-known domain, is the target. There are three steps in analogical reasoning. In the first, we have a target, and have to retrieve a source domain. In the second step, we construct a mapping between the source and the target. This involves aligning the representations of the two domains, so that their common relational structure is in correspondence. Thus, in mapping the atom onto the solar system, we align electrons with planets, and the nucleus with the sun, so that the common relation “small object revolving around a larger object” is preserved. After the mapping stage, we can construct inferences from the source to the target. For example, we might infer from the atom-solar system analogy that there is a force caused by the nucleus that keeps the electrons rotating around it, just as there is a force (gravity) that keeps the planets in their orbits around the sun. These inferences are made based on the common relational structure between the two domains, so that attributes of the source that do not correspond to anything in the target will not be used to form inferences. It is this stage that makes analogies so useful, because they allow us to use our knowledge of better-known domains to reason about lesser-known domains.

The lesson to draw from the preceding paragraph is that analogies work because they preserve structural commonalities between two domains. Superficial comparisons, based only on surface similarities (e.g., common perceptual properties, like color or size), are less effective at producing inferences, and thus less effective at producing or conveying knowledge about the target domain. However, experiments on analogy have shown that people are not very good at noticing structural similarities between a target and potential source domains that they have been given1. Instead, they tend to make comparisons based on surface similarities (about 70% of participants use surface similarities, in most experiments). Since people do in fact use analogies effectively in many real-world contexts, implying that they are able to make analogies that are based on structural, rather than superficial similarities, researchers began to study analogy outside of the laboratory, to see where they might be going wrong. One of the areas they looked to was politics, because even a cursory look at political discourse shows that analogies are used with frequency there.

Political Analogies: The Research

During the lead up to the Gulf War in 1990-1991, two competing analogies were used extensively. The first, used mostly by opponents of the war, compared the situation in Kuwait to the Vietnam War. The second, used by proponents of the war, especially President Bush, compared the same situation to World War II. In fact, the World War II analogy was largely used to reframe the debate so that Vietnam would no longer be seen as analogous. Here are a couple examples of the use of the World War II analogy from statements by Bush:

A half a century ago our nation and world paid dearly for appeasing an aggressor who should and could have stopped. We’re not about to make the same mistake twice.

Facing negligible resistance from its much smaller neighbor, Iraq’s troops stormed in blitzkrieg fashion through Kuwait in just a few short hours.

In addition to broad comparisons like these, Bush and others also repeatedly compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler, further solidifying the Gulf War-World War II analogy/frame.

The effectiveness of the World War II analogy (it virtually eliminated the influence of the Vietnam frame in the debate over the war) belies its comlexity. For instance, when creating a mapping between the two domains (the second stage above), what should we map the U.S. onto? There are at least two possibilities: the U.S. during World War II, or Great Britain during World War II. And what about Bush himself? Is he Roosevelt or Churchill? In order to use the analogies effectively, people must be able to resolve these ambiguities. How do they do so? In order to find out, Spellman and Holyoak2 brought this analogy into the lab. They gave participants various versions of the Gulf War-World War II analogy, and asked them to map the various predicates of the World War II domain onto those of the Gulf War domain. They found that even though it was possible to map the U.S. (in 1990) onto the U.S. (in 1941), which would be a mapping based on surface similarities, participants preferred mappings that preserved the structural relations between the two domains, even if that meant mapping the U.S. onto Great Britain. Thus, participants resolve the ambiguities in the analogy through the use of structural similarities. This confirmed the suspicion that while participants in experiments that used experimenter-constructed analogies had difficulty producing structural mappings, people use, and actually prefer, such mappings when constructing and interpreting real-world analogies.

But why? Why are participants able to utilize structural similarities with real-world analogies, while they have so much trouble doing so in ordinary experimental contexts? To answer this question, Isabelle Blanchette and Kevin Dunbar left the laboratory again, and looked to the real-world use of analogies in political discourse for insight. As their domain of study, they chose the referendum in 1995 to decide whether Quebec should secede from Canada, and form a separate nation. For the Americans among us, here are the basics of that debate, from Blanchette and Dunbar (2001)3.

The Canadian province of Québec held a referendum on October 30th 1995 to determine whether Québec should separate from the country of Canada and become an independent country or whether it should stay part of Canada. The province of Québec is where the majority of the French-speaking population of Canada resides. Voters had the choice of voting YES for becoming a new country, or NO for staying in Canada. The political campaign was divided into the YES side and the NO side. Both sides campaigned extensively and the NO side won by the slimmest of majorities (51%). (p. 731)

They analyzed the discussion of the referendum in three Montreal newspapers, searching for any instance of analogy. For the purposes of data collection, they defined analogy as “All items in which a person stated a similarity exists between X and Y and mapped a feature or features from X to Y” (p.731). They found analogies in 38% of the almost 500 articles that they searched. Most of these analogies (77%) were to non-political domains, indicating that people were constructing analogies based on structural, rather than superficial similarities (the most common domains were “magic/religion, sports, and family relationships,” p. 732). Example of the analogies they found include:

Québec’s path to sovereignty is like a hockey game. The referendum is the end of the third period.

Separation is like a major surgery. It’s important that the patient is informed by the surgeon and that the surgeon is impartial. The referendum is a way to inform the population. But in this case the surgeons are not impartial and they really want their operation.

It’s like parents getting a divorce, and maybe the parent you don’t like getting custody.

In addition to coding the analogies by source domain, they also coded their emotional content (positive, negative, or neutral), the position of the author (pro-separation or anti-separation), and the goal of the analogy (whether it was used to support the author’s position, or to attack the alternative position). They found that analogies with positive (45%) and negative (40%) emotional content were used about equally often, and that both the position of the author and the goal of the analogy influenced the analogy’s content. For instance, pro- and anti-separation authors tended to use analogies from the same domains, but with different sources from those domains. One example Blanchette and Dunbar give comes from the family relations domain. Pro-separation authors tended to use “birth” analogies with frequency, while anti-separation authors used “divorce” analogies. The goal of the domain tended to influence the emotional content of the analogy. When the analogy was used to support the author’s position, the emotional content was almost always positive, while analogies used to attack the other position almost always had negative content.

What does all of this tell us? Well, it shows us again that people are able to construct analogies based on structural, rather than superficial similarities, in real-world situations. In addition, it provides a hint as to why they are able to do so easily, while experiment participants are not. Since the emotional content of the analogy, position of the author, and goal of the analogy were all important, the retrieval of a source appears to be both highly constrained (e.g., pro-separation authors who are attacking the anti-separation position will, in most cases, only retrieve emotionally negative sources from one of a few source domains, and with content that does not produce negative connotations for their own position, such as “divorce”). In most experimental contexts, participants are given a set of sources which may be from unusual domains, and must later retrieve those sources when given a target. Thus, they are not retrieving their own sources, which are based on their own position and goals, which may make it more difficult for them to find structural similarities4.

To test this hypothesis, Blanchette and Dunbar went back to the laboratory. There they presented participants with a political problem (the zero-sum deficit problem in Canada in the late 1990s), and asked them to generate either pro or con analogies5. Consistent with the hypothesis that participants in previous studies had trouble noticing structural similarities because they were not generating the sources themselves, Blanchette and Dunbar (2000) found that when participants generated their own analogies, they produced significantly more analogies based on structural features than on surface features.

Blanchette and Dunbar (2000) also noted another interesting feature of the analogies that participants produced when they generated their own source domains. In most cases, participants left most of the analogy implicit. In particular, while they tended to give at least some features of the source domain, they did not do so for the target, leaving it up to the reader of the analogy to draw appropriate inferences. This fits well with their observations of real-world political analogies, which are often largely implicit as well.

Political Analogies: The Implications

So, in politics, people are using structurally-based analogies, which tend to be emotionally charged, drawn from familiar but non-political domains, and which vary in content depending on the position the user of the analogy has taken and how he or she is using the analogy (i.e., the goal of the analogy), with most of the content left for the hearer or reader to fill in. Furthermore, when participants in laboratory experiments generate their own analogies, the features of those analogies are similar to those that are found in real-world political discourse. It’s likely that all of these features serve a communicative and persuasive purpose. To wrap up this post, I want to briefly discuss how these features work to frame issues and positions.

To understand how analogies can be so effective in political discourse, it’s important to understand that they are not just simle rhetorical devices. The mapping between the source and target domains can serve as a schema for reasoning about the target. In fact, this is likely why most analogies are largely implicit. Researchers have shown that schema-formation through analogical mapping is more likely when people use an analogy (i.e., construct inferences from the source to the target)6. Thus, by allowing people to do most of the work in mapping the target onto the source and drawing inferences, we allow the mapping between the source of our choosing and the target to serve as a schema for reasoning about the schema. If our source has particular emotional connotations, these will likely be part of the schema, and thus people will attach those emotional connotations to the target when reasoning about it in the future. The effectiveness of the “Saddam is Hitler” metaphor, used over and over again in the U.S. since 1990, is an excellent demonstration of this. So is the Vietnam analogy, which has negative connotations about both sides. In 1990-1991, it was inneffective and overshadowed by the World War II analogy, which would create positive emotional associations with the United States. However, it has been more effective in comparisons to the current conflict in Iraq, which has led to negative emotional associations with the U.S., its government, and its military tactics.

All of this shows that it is important to choose your analogies, and how you express them, very carefully. Effective analogies can change the way large groups of people reason about an issue. It is also important to make sure that you do not discuss an issue within the frame of your opponent’s analogy. As research has shown, the initial use of an analogy effectively sets the structure of the frame, and thus determines the sorts of inferences that people will draw. While trying to highlight alternative properties of the target to license alternative inferences from an analogy (e.g., if one opposed the Gulf War in 1990, one might have noted that the allies actions after the war led to the destabalization of much of Asia, as well as creating the eastern block), can be effective, it is better to create new analogies that can cause people’s representations to change more dramatically. This is what Lakoff is getting at when he says that liberals should talk about taxation as “dues paid for services rendered” as opposed to an affliction (the source imlied by speaking of “tax relief”). Finally, it’s important to draw analogies from domains with which people are very familiar. These will make the mappings easier to create, and thus make it easier for people to draw inferences from them and to recognize emotional associations. This is probably why so many of the analogies that Blanchette and Dunbar discovered were to domains like family relations, sports, and religion.

1 E.g., Gick, M. & Holyoak, K. J. (1983). Schema induction and analogical transfer. Cognitive Psychology, 15(1), 1-38. See also Gentner, D., Ratterman, M., & Forbus, K. (1983). The roles of similarity in transfer: separating retrievability from inferential soundness. Cognitive Psychology, 25, 524-575.
2Spellman,B. & Keith, H. (1992). If Saddam is Hitler then Who Is George Bush? Analogical Mapping Between Systems of Social Roles. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 913-933.
3Blanchette, I., & Dunbar, K. (2001). Analogy use in naturalistic settings: The influence of audience, emotion, and goals. Memory and Cognition, 29(5), 730-735.
4Dunbar, K. (2001). The analogical paradox: Why analogy is so easy in naturalistic settings, yet so difficult in the psychological laboratory. In D. Gentner, K.J. Holyoak, & B. Kokinov (eds.), The Analogical Mind: Perspectives from Cognitive Science, pp.
5Blanchette, I., & Dunbar, K. (2000). How analogies are generated: The roles of structural and superficial similarity. Memory and Cognition, 29, 730-735.
6See e.g., Gick, M.L., & Holyoak, K.J. (1983). Schema induction in analogical transfer. Cognitive Psychology, 15, 1-38.