Informativity and asymmetry in comparisons

Brian F. Bowdle*, Dedre Gentner

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

62 Scopus citations


We propose an account of comparison asymmetries based on viewing comparison as a process of structural alignment and mapping. Specifically, we hypothesize that (1) comparison asymmetries result from directional differences in informativity, and that (2) asymmetries can therefore be predicted from the relative degree of systematicity or conceptual coherence of the items being compared. In Experiment 1, we found a clear preference for placing the more systematic of two passages in the base position of a comparison. Experiments 1 and 2 further showed that structural alignability is crucial in obtaining such asymmetries. In Experiment 3, we found that asymmetries are predicted by the relative systematicity of the comparisons items rather than by the relative size of the distinctive feature sets. These results are inconsistent with accounts of asymmetry based on feature contrast or stimulus bias. In Experiments 4 through 6, we tested the functional implications of our account by examining inference projection and perceived informativity across asymmetric comparisons. Critically, comparisons having the more systematic item as the base were more likely to result in inference projection and other forms of target modification and were rated as more informative than reverse comparisons. We conclude by demonstrating that this account can explain comparison asymmetries without positing underlying asymmetries in sub-jective similarity, and that it offers a unified approach to the directionality of literal comparisons, analogies, and metaphors,

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)244-286
Number of pages43
JournalCognitive Psychology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Dec 1997

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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