Rethinking analogical reasoning: The power of stimuli and task framework in understanding biomedical science, technological advancements, and social interactions

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Analogical reasoning is a critical learning process, as it is thought to form the basis of the construction of knowledge and problem solving in novel contexts. To better understand how to leverage this strategy, knowledge of the cognitive mechanisms that underlie reasoning, as well as factors that modulate reasoning, is needed. Such knowledge can springboard the development of communication, presentation, and testing strategies that facilitate accurate comprehension of information. While the benefits of analogical reasoning are clear, researchers continue to debate whether humans are predisposed to reason on a surface level or on a deeper, analogical level. Since analogy can be employed in a variety of contexts, we sought to determine whether the successful engagement of analogy is context-dependent. To understand reasoning in social interactions, we investigated the types of relations individuals identified in situations involving negotiation, conflict, and resolution. These types of situations, described by short, fable-like stories, are a hallmark of classical analogical reasoning research paradigms. To expose applications of reasoning in science and technology (S&T), we explored how different strategies can be used to identify relations between the mechanisms of drug delivery and the defense capabilities of military-operated unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). We found that numerous factors can selectively modulate reasoning and that reasoning strategy is situation-dependent. We also found that the way that individuals are probed or tested with targeted questions drives the way in which analogical reasoning is deployed. Consequently, analogical reasoning can be used to facilitate comprehension of technical concepts if asked to retrieve at a deeper conceptual level. Based on these findings, we argue that reasoning is a flexible and strategic process, rather than a fixed ability. As such, this suggests that analogical reasoning can be used to more effectively communicate and present scientific and technical information. Further, the strategic use of analogical reasoning has assessment, training, and strategic messaging applications in countless contexts, such as those within education, vocational training, healthcare, media, and even legal settings.