Analogy Generation in Science Experts and Novices

Micah B. Goldwater*, Dedre Gentner, Nicole D. LaDue, Julie C. Libarkin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


There is a critical inconsistency in the literature on analogical retrieval. On the one hand, a vast set of laboratory studies has found that people often fail to retrieve past experiences that share deep relational commonalities, even when they would be useful for reasoning about a current problem. On the other hand, historical studies and naturalistic research show clear evidence of remindings based on deep relational commonalities. Here, we examine a possible explanation for this inconsistency—namely, that remindings based on relational principles increase as a function of expertise. To test this claim, we devised a simple analogy-generation task that can be administered across a wide range of expertise. We presented common events as the bases from which to generate analogies. Although the events themselves were unrelated to geoscience, we found that when the event was explainable in terms of a causal principle that is prominent in geoscience, expert geoscientists were likely to spontaneously produce analogies from geoscience that relied on the same principle. Further, for these examples, prompts to produce causal analogies increased their frequency among nonscientists and scientists from another domain, but not among expert geoscientists (whose spontaneous causal retrieval levels were already high). In contrast, when the example was best explained by a principle outside of geoscience, all groups required prompting to produce substantial numbers of analogies based on causal principles. Overall, this pattern suggests that the spontaneous use of causal principles is characteristic of experts. We suggest that expert scientists adopt habitual patterns of encoding according to the key relational principles in their domain, and that this contributes to their propensity to spontaneously retrieve relational matches. We discuss implications for the nature of expertise and for science instruction and assessment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere13036
JournalCognitive Science
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2021


  • Analogy
  • Causal reasoning
  • Expertise
  • STEM education
  • Science expertise

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Artificial Intelligence


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