Book chapter (electronic)

The Role of Analogies in Crisis Decision Making (2020)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


Analogical reasoning is a mode of thinking in which a current situation, person, or event is compared with something encountered in the past that appears "similar" to the analogizer. The 2020 Coronavirus crisis was often compared with the 1918 flu epidemic, for instance. In addition to reasoning across time, we can also reason across space, comparing a current case with something that has been encountered within a different geographical space. Sticking with the Coronavirus example, the management of the disease in one country was often compared with that in another, with favorable or unfavorable lessons being drawn. Analogical reasoning plays a major role in crisis decision-making, in large part because decisions made under such circumstances have to be taken in rapid (and, indeed, almost immediate) fashion. When this is the case, it is often tempting to conclude that "this time will resemble last time" or "this problem will resemble a situation confronted elsewhere." But these analogies are drawn, and decisions are made, by individuals who must confront their own very human cognitive psychological limitations. Since analogies are essentially heuristic devices that cut short the process of informational search, they are usually seen as good enough but do not ensure optimal decision-making. Analogies are at a premium during crisis-like events, but their "bounded" nature means that their use will sometimes lead to errors in processing information. In particular, the drawing of an analogy often leads to an underestimation of ways in which the current crisis is "different" from the baseline event.