Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Nonintentional Analogical Inference in Text Comprehension

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Nonintentional Analogical Inference in Text Comprehension

Article excerpt

We present findings suggesting that analogical inference processes can play a role in fluent comprehension and interpretation. Participants were found to use information from a prior relationally similar example in understanding the content of a later example, but they reported that they were not aware of having done so. These inference processes were sensitive to structural mappings between the two instances, ruling out explanations based solely on more general kinds of activation, such as priming. Reading speed measures were consistent with the possibility that these inferences had taken place during encoding of the target rather than during the later recognition test. These findings suggest that analogical mapping, though often viewed as an explicit deliberative process, can sometimes operate without intent or even awareness.

In making our way through the world, we are confronted with a constant stream of information-far too much to encode exactly. One of our most fundamental tasks is therefore simply to make sense of the things we encounter, organizing incoming information in relation to our expectations and prior experience. For instance, witnessing a scene with a woman in an elaborate white gown may cause us to classify her as a bride, which leads to the activation of our schema for a traditional wedding ceremony. This, in turn, allows us to determine the roles of other individuals (e.g., the man next to her is her groom, the person facing them is their minister) and to make countless additional attributions and inferences about the people and events involved. All of this is accomplished so quickly and so effortlessly that we tend to underestimate the complexity of the cognitive processes that are demanded.

It seems uncontroversial that categorization and schema activation may contribute to the fast, nondeliberative assignment of meaning to the world. Another process that has not generally been considered in this way is analogy, which brings to bear specific prior events or episodes.

In analogical processing, new information about an object or event may be inferred on the basis of structural similarities to a better-understood instantiated system. One classic example is Rutherford's model of the atom, which was based on knowledge about the solar system (see Centner, 1983). By delineating a few common relations shared by the two systems, Rutherford was able to make informed speculations about additional properties and spatial and causal relationships within the atom. Additional research has highlighted the important role that analogy continues to play in contemporary scientific discoveries (see, e.g., Dunbar, 1995, 1999; Centner, 2002; Thagard, 1992). As these and countless other examples demonstrate, analogy provides an invaluable tool for reasoning about poorly understood situations, solving difficult problems, and making plausible inferences about unknown properties, behaviors, and characteristics (Centner & Markman, 1997; Holyoak & Thagard, 1995; Hummel & Holyoak, 1997).

Although a substantial body of research exists looking at this "traditional" sort of analogy use, it is inviting to consider whether the same analogical processes may also be involved in the far more routine task of organizing and interpreting our daily experiences. Intuitively, it seems that analogies with our prior experience could contribute to our fluency in processing current situations, even when such analogies are not overtly noticed or intentionally pursued. But such a use of analogy poses some challenges to previous research, which has (explicitly or implicitly) treated analogical processing as an inherently slow, analytical activity.

In the experiments presented in this article, we examined this possibility and found evidence supporting the use of analogy in structuring and understanding novel information. Specifically, when given a written passage in which certain facts were left unstated or ambiguous, individuals were likely to make interpretations that paralleled structural information from a previously read, analogous scenario. …

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