WE use analogies all the time in our life. It is the key to thinking, problem-solving and finding our way around. It gives us reassurance when we enter a new place. We become less disoriented when we navigate a new experience.
I am reminded of this each time I walk into the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), which is not often. It is this latter infrequency that makes the experience more interesting and it shines a small light on how we handle cognition. Most airports in the world, I should say, have similarities. There is the arrival and a departure lounge, the check-in counter, the information boards, and then the security system that you have to go through before finally departing.
These are things that you learn by drawing analogies in your mind — between airports you have visited and the new airport that you have just stepped into. You draw similar analogies when you enter a shop, navigate through a government department or when you are visiting someone for the first time in a hospital. We have these analogical maps in our heads all the time, which is why we are able to find our way in big cities, even if you are there for the first time.
But even though I can find my way through the system at KLIA, arriving or departing, I am always surprised to be reminded, somewhere in my journey through this comfort zone of analogical familiarity, that there is a rail link from one part of the KLIA to the other. Sometimes, this rediscovery hits me when I am placidly sipping a cup of tea, thinking in the back of my mind that it is just a short walk to the departure gate when the time comes. In the recesses of my mind I have this memory of waving friends and relatives goodbye at the appropriate time, but not the wait for the train to the next stage.
Why is that part not registered in my mind? Cognitive psychologist Arthur Markman offers an explanation for this in his book Smart Thinking. We use comparisons all the time to evaluate situations, performances, talent, products and so on. The trouble with this comparison is that we tend to highlight the commonalities as well as the alignable differences. Alignable differences exist between two things that are generally, but not wholly, similar, say between a motorcycle and a car. Non-alignable differences exist between two very dissimilar objects: an ant and a jam jar, for instance.
If you are a ballroom dancer and you are asked to judge a performance in figure skating for the first time, you will look for similarities between what you know and what you are now witnessing — music, dance, the execution of movements, and so on. There may be a non-alignable difference that the performer is eager to highlight in figure skating but you will ignore that because you are so engrossed in looking at the similarities.
My experience at KLIA is an example of that. Not many airports, in my experience, have a train connecting one part to another, so, even though I have been on the connecting train at KLIA before, I tend to overlook — or forget. Instead, I tend to remember and do look for similarities in signage, the arrangement of positions and so on between KLIA and, say, Heathrow airport in London.
How does one solve this problem for the ease of travellers at KLIA? How does a performer highlight a different skill that his or her rivals do not have? One way of doing that is by making sure that it gets noticed. One way for KLIA to make passengers notice and remember this difference in the mode of movement is by highlighting it, either by highlighting it as an added convenience (“To help you reach the departure area faster, we provide, for your convenience, a train service at point B…”); or by reminders and signage that stand out above all the rest.
By using analogy and by understanding its strong and weak points we become better thinkers. The way a problem is solved in one situation can be transferred to another, but analogy can also hamper your progress in thinking. An example given by Markman is in house buying. You will make comparisons between the living room, bedroom and kitchen of the house you are viewing with the house you are presently living in, and you will come to many wide and varied conclusions. Far better, he says, if you evaluate each option independently; picture yourself sitting in that living room, kitchen, etc, not what it will be like for you somewhere else.A proverb, he says, is another use of analogy, and a useful one, too, because it helps us understand the gist of the situation. Take one: A stitch in time saves nine. It is not the stitch or the nine that will stick in your mind as important but the principle contained therein. You will carry it with you to solve your life’s many problems. WAN A HULAIMI - NST Opinions 17 AUGUST 2014 @ 8:06 AM