Old Marley was as dead as a door nail – the power of analogy

“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.”

A Christmas Carol was written by Charles Dickens in October 1843 and published on December 19th the same year. By Christmas’s Eve it had sold 6,000 copies at 5 shillings each, unfortunately Dickens only made £230 due to the elaborate illustrations and a not so lucrative deal with Chapman and Hall, the publishers. Today you could by an original copy for around £40,000.

Although Dickens might not have struck a particularly good business deal, he used an excellent analogy to describe exactly how dead Marley, his business partner was. Incidentally the reason a doornail is considered so dead is to do with the way it is bent over and hammered flat, making it unusable. Click for a more detailed explanation.

Put simply, analogies highlight shared characteristics between two things. It’s an umbrella term for a cognitive process where we transfer meaning or information from one subject to another and as a result improve understanding. For example, “life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get” is an analogy from Forrest Gump that makes the connection between the choices and surprises you face when deciding on what chocolate to have…. and life. It helps illustrate the uncertainty of life, the fact that faced with choice you don’t always make the best one and sometimes when you “bite” into life you might be pleasantly surprised. Many analogies are used in everyday speech, for example “doing that will be as about as effective as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic”, meaning it will make no difference. Similes and metaphors can be used in the same way, in many instances providing the infrastructure to support the analogy. Life is like a box of chocolates, is a simile.

But the distinction between, analogy, metaphor and similia doesn’t really matter, the important point is that all of these can be used to improve understanding, navigate complexity and help with problem solving by using what is called analogical reasoning.

Making abstract concrete
There are many reasons as to why analogies work so well. They often require the use of images, connect existing information with new and encourage reflection, retrieval and the manipulation of ideas. All of which help move information from short to long term memory. There is also a strong connection with the 6 evidenced based learning strategies covered in previous blogs, in particular using concrete examples to make concepts more real. This is one of the most powerful ways to use an analogy.

How do you explain the dual concept in accounting? Here is the answer – the dual concept tells us that every transaction affects the business in at least two ways which are equal and opposite in nature.

Even though you have an explanation, because it’s a concept, an abstract idea, it has no form which makes it difficult for the brain to grasp. But if you can relate it by way of an analogy, perhaps thinking of the dual concept as a set of scales where whatever you put on one side you have to put on another, it becomes more tangible and an understanding develops.

Designing an analogy
Sometimes an analogy will just emerge, from my own experience this is often the case when I have thought about a particular topic or taught it for many years. The catalyst might be someone saying, I don’t understand. As a result, you rack your brains to come up with an alternative way of explaining, and the analogy just appears. However, when studying, you don’t have time for this but coming up with your own analogy might really help. Here is one way of doing it.

Pick two objects, ideas or domains
e.g. a carrot and learning
Write down the main characteristics
– Carrots – are orange, grow from a seed, need water, good for you etc
– Learning – requires effort, takes time, builds on prior knowledge, helps you in life etc
Evaluate by looking for commonalities
Learning is not dissimilar to a carrot, it starts very small, takes time to grow, needs nurturing and is good for you. A slightly silly example but hopefully it shows how the process could work.

A word of warning, as powerful as analogies can be they aren’t the answer to everything. Research shows they can cause learners to create incorrect mental models and as such draw the wrong conclusions, so always keep a check on the logic behind the analogy and at what point it stops working.

A few more analogies
– “A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.” Winston S. Churchill
– “You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat.” Albert Einstein
– “Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.” Leo Tolstoy
They can also make you laugh – “When I die, I want to go peacefully like my Grandfather did, in his sleep – not screaming, like the passengers in his car.”

And as Tiny Tim said, “A Merry Christmas to us all; God bless us, every one!”
Happy Holidays and here’s to a much better 2022.