Foundations Of Cognitive Science


In cognitive psychology, analogy is considered an important method of problem solving. The problem solver attempts to use his or her knowledge of one problem to solve another problem about which she or he has very little or no information. Barsalou (1992) provides the following example of problem solving by analogy:

"...someone who has worked at the complex for a while could simply explain to you that the layout is analogous to a starfish. On hearing this analogy you might transfer knowledge about starfish to the office complex. Thus the knowledge that a starfish has a circular body, with five legs extending from it radially and symetrically would lead to the belief that the office complex contains a center circular body, with five tapered buildings extending from it in a radially symmetric pattern." (p.110)

Obviously people do not use all of their knowledge about one problem to solve another problem. In the context of his starfish example Barsalou points out that we would not begin to think that the office complex is alive, or that it lives underwater.

One problem facing cogntive psychologists is determining how people decide upon the extent to which an analogy applies. This is more difficult than it may seem, because given enough time people can find analogies between any two phenomena. We might want to say that, like the starfish, the office complex is alive--its heating ducts are like blood vessels, its doors are like mouths eating the people who enter the office complex every day. As a cognitive process analogy seems limitless. In a science that strives for regularity and lawfulness the limitlessness of analogical thinking poses a serious problem.


  1. Barsalou, L. (1992). Cognitive psychology: An overview for cognitive psychologists. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

(Revised November 2009)