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date: 20 September 2017

Analogies and Metaphors and Foreign Policy Decision Making

Summary and Keywords

Like all decision making, foreign policy decision making (FPDM) requires transferring meaning from one representation to another. Since the end of the Cold War, students of FPDM have focused increasingly on historical analogies and, to a lesser extent, conceptual metaphors to explain how this transference works. Drawing on converging evidence from the cognitive sciences, as well as careful case studies of foreign policymaking, they’ve shown analogy and metaphor to be much more than “cheap talk.” Instead, metaphor and analogy are intrinsic to policymakers’ cognition.

This article traces the development of this growing literature. So far, FPDM has treated analogy and metaphor separately. It has also paid far more attention to the former than the latter. By contrast, the article argues that analogy and metaphor are not only similar, they are equally essential to cognition. It defines and compares metaphor and analogy, analyzes their socio-cognitive functions in decision making, and charts the evolution of analogy and metaphor research in FPDM. It also suggests the utility of a constructivist-cognitive synthesis for future work in this area.

Keywords: metaphor, analogy, foreign policy, decision making, cognitive science, constructivism, political psychology


Philosopher and psychologist William James believed that “humans can understand things, events, and experiences only from and through the viewpoint of other things, events, and experiences” (Houghton, 2001, p. 21). As we’ll see, cognitive science has since vindicated James’ insight. It hasn’t been lost on students of foreign policy decision making (FPDM), either. FPDM increasingly looks to metaphor and analogy as “manifestation[s] of the cognitive process, whereby one thing is seen in terms of another” (Chilton, 1996a, p. 413). Since the Cold War ended, the subfield has given birth to a booming literature on policymakers’ use of historical analogies, and, increasingly, metaphors. It’s not hard to see why—the conduct and justification of foreign policy is shot through with analogical and metaphorical reasoning.

Take 20th-century U.S. foreign policy as an example. Post-WWI isolationism sprung from a “no more 1917s” sentiment (Khong, 1992, p. 4). Hitler’s conquests enjoined decision makers to heed the “lessons of Munich” and avoid appeasing aggressors. President Truman took Munich’s “lessons” to heart when he ordered U.S. forces to Korea—a state of hitherto marginal strategic significance (May, 1973). The Korean War was, of course, the first major military instantiation of the American “containment” doctrine. Containment itself was conceptualized metaphorically as the United States applying “pressure” to “hold in” Soviet influence that would otherwise “flow out” of Moscow and “penetrate” the free world (Chilton, 1996b, pp. 206–207). Kennedy’s decision to forgo immediate air strikes during the Cuban Missile Crisis was shaped by a moral analogy: it would have been “un-American” to launch a “Pearl Harbor in reverse” against Cuba (Tierney, 2007). The “Cold War”—itself a metaphor—was thought of in terms of “falling dominos,” and the fear of Southeast Asian states “toppling” precipitated Johnson’s escalation in Vietnam (Glad & Taber, 1990; Shimko, 1995). Vietnam analogies haunted intervention debates for decades thereafter (Macdonald, 2000; Paris, 2002; Taylor & Rourke, 1995).

Latter-day Cold War policy was also shaped by analogy and metaphor. The 1970s saw policymakers debate the presence of a metaphorical “window of vulnerability” that would allow a Soviet first strike. The “window” then justified the large nuclear arms build-up that began under Carter. Reagan upended strategic discourse and policy in the mid-1980s with his vision of a “leak-proof” anti-missile “shield” that would transcend mutual deterrence (Flanik, 2013). Meanwhile, the president’s policies regarding the American hostages in Lebanon culminated in the Iran-Contra scandal. The actions leading to the scandal were driven in large part by Reagan’s resolve to avoid repeating what he saw as Carter’s mistakes (Hemmer, 2000).

When the Cold War ended, the metaphors and analogies kept coming. Suffering from a “Somalia syndrome,” Clinton declined to intervene in the Rwandan genocide, lest the “Battle of Mogadishu” repeat itself (Brunk, 2008). More broadly, post-Cold War strategy was reoriented to guard against metaphorical “rogue states” (Klare, 1996) and to fight a literal “war” against terrorism (Hodges, 2011).

Even this cursory history suggests that it’s difficult to understand, let alone explain, many foreign policy decisions without analyzing the metaphors and historical analogies decision-makers use. It’s true that, like foreign policy analysis (FPA) as a whole, much of the FPDM literature on analogy and metaphor examines American cases. But because metaphorical and analogical reasoning are universal features of human cognition (Holyoak, Gentner, & Nokinov, 2001, p. 2), they’re certainly not limited to U.S. decision making (for example, Chilton, 1996a; Goldgeier, 1994; Goldsmith, 2003; Macdonald, 2000; Reiter, 1996; Saltzman, 2016; Siniver & Collins, 2015; Slingerland, Blanchard, & Boyd-Judson, 2007).

While analogy and metaphor are both important, mainstream FPA has not treated them equally. A scan of five English-language FPA textbooks shows three discussions of historical analogy and no mention of metaphor at all (Alden & Aran, 2011; Beasley, Kaarbo, Lantis, & Snarr, 2012; Breuning, 2007; Hudson, 2013; Smith, Hadfield, & Dunne, 2012.). Levy’s (2013) survey of FPDM shows a similar pattern, as does Houghton’s (2009) textbook on political psychology. It seems that FPA has ushered analogical reasoning into the canon while remaining wary of metaphor.

But foreign policy decision making—like all cognition—requires transferring meaning from one representation to another, and analogy and metaphor are both essential to this process. Metaphor and analogy, therefore, are equally important in explaining foreign policy decision making. I support this claim by assessing a broad body of literature within and beyond FPDM. The article compares and contrasts metaphor and analogy, analyzes their socio-cognitive functions, and charts the evolution of analogy and metaphor research in FPDM. I argue that our subfield’s benign neglect of metaphor research is not a function of its unimportance. Instead, inattention to metaphor reflects disciplinary, methodological, and epistemological divides among metaphor analysts.

Analogy and Metaphor in Foreign Policy Analysis

It’s important to differentiate the FPDM senses of analogy and metaphor from their use in everyday discourse. We typically think of analogies and metaphors as figures of speech that represent one thing in terms of something else. We often think of metaphor in the context of literature and other creative genres, while we associate analogy with rational argumentation (e.g., legal discourse in common law states). Regardless of genre, analogy and metaphor are conventionally conceptualized as linguistic and rhetorical devices, not conceptual ones. This is the case not only in popular discourse, but in much of the political communication field (for example, Ivie, 1989, 1999; Krug, 1991; Spector, 1996). Relegating analogy and metaphor to rhetoric consigns them to “unscientific” status, unbefitting the “proper” study of decision making (Beer & De Landtsheer, 2004, p. 5; Zashin & Chapman, 1974, p. 292). Over the past generation, however, a wave of FPDM scholarship has shown the cognitive reality and causal power of analogy and metaphor.

The study of historical analogies has become a relatively “normal science” (Kuhn, 1970) in FPDM. The analogical literature began with atheoretical and ideographic case studies in the 1970s and 1980s (May, 1973; Neustadt & May, 1988). Spurred by Jervis’ (1976) turn to cognitive psychology, as well as a growing body of work in “second generation” cognitive science (Gardner, 1987), later analysis treated analogies more systematically, as information-processing shortcuts (Breuning, 2012; Brunk, 2008; Goldgeier, 1994; Goldsmith, 2003; Houghton, 2001; Hybel, 1990; Khong, 1992; Macdonald, 2000; Mefford, 1986; Reiter, 1996; Saltzman, 2016;Siniver & Collins, 2015; Tierney, 2007; Vertzberger, 1990). Analogies were acknowledged to have rhetorical utility (Taylor & Rourke, 1995), but they weren’t considered to be post-hoc justifications; neither were they epiphenomena of interests, ideologies, or structural factors. Scholars used qualitative and quantitative methods to demonstrate that policymakers’ analogies actually drove decision making. Compared to metaphor, the analogy literature has accumulated and produced a body of testable, middle-range theories.

The study of metaphor is equally compelling, but it’s not yet a “normal science” in FPA. Perhaps it never will be. The reasons have more to do with the sociology of knowledge than with the nature of metaphor. Compared to analogy scholarship, the study of metaphor is more mutli-disciplinary, methodologically pluralistic, and epistemologically divided.

Whereas applied analogy literature is concentrated in political psychology and its eponymous journal, metaphor research straddles the disciplines of political communication, psychology, and cultural studies. Scholars publish in unfamiliar, multi-disciplinary journal outlets like Metaphor and Symbol and Metaphor and the Social World. This fragmentation makes cumulative knowledge building more difficult.

Metaphor research also requires more interpretive methodologies. Historical analogies typically involve “explicit comparison[s] of a past event or person” to current policy (Macdonald, 2000, p. 22; emphasis added). Hitler analogies, for instance, are usually used intentionally, and are obvious in policymakers’ texts. Mainstream FPDM is comfortable with analyzing such “manifest” content. But metaphors are comparatively “latent.” They are tricky to identify reliably because most of them are naturalized in language use. Indeed, speakers are often unaware of the metaphors they use (Thibodeau & Boroditsky, 2013). Such pre-conscious metaphors comprise anywhere from 10 to 20% of natural discourse, and their identification and classification turns on painstaking parsing of meaning (Steen, Dorst, Herrmann, Kall, Krennmayr, & Pasma, 2010). High inter-coder reliability is possible, but there’s no way to automate metaphor analysis or exclude intuition from the process.

Epistemologically, metaphor analysts are split on whether language—and hence metaphor—constitutes or causes social reality. Metaphor research in FPA branches into corresponding discursivist and cognitivist camps (Blanchard, 2012). Discursivists view language as constitutive, while cognitivists see it as mainly causal.1

Because language constitutes reality, discursivists argue, metaphorical discourse is a form of social action in and of itself (Fierke, 1998). This means that analysts needn’t postulate underlying cognitive mechanisms “causing” behavior. It also means that “thick descriptions” (Geertz, 1973) of metaphorical discourses suffice to account for foreign policy. Discursive analysts include some feminist (Cohn, 1987; Costigliola, 1997), critical (Masters, 2005; Mutimer, 2000), and post-structural theorists (Bormann, 2008; Shah, 2008; Weber, 1999). None of these scholars are concerned with decision making per se, or with formulating “actor-specific” accounts of foreign policy (Hudson, 2005). This helps explain why their work is not well represented in mainstream FPA despite its substantively interesting questions.

Cognitivists counter that the metaphorical construction of reality should be theorized in cognitive neurally plausible terms. After all, there must be causal mechanisms linking discourse and social reality, and those links must run through human bodies and brains (Chilton, 2005). Theorizing causal mechanisms reveals relationships between metaphorical discourse and decision making, and these can be traced with both mainstream and interpretive methods. The cognitive group encompasses applied linguists2 and political psychologists (for example, Oppermann & Spencer, 2013), both of whom explicitly connect metaphor to decision making. Because discursivists aren’t concerned with FPDM, attention is focused on socio-cognitive theories of metaphor.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (2003) pioneered the dominant socio-cognitive approach in their seminal work, Metaphors We Live By. First appearing in 1980, the book spawned a vigorous research program in cognitive linguistics, and eventually the whole of cognitive science (Johnson, 2010). These findings took a relatively long time to filter into FPDM. Keith Shimko (1994) was the first to put them squarely before an FPDM audience in a Political Psychology article. His piece mapped out a research agenda for metaphor and FPDM that has largely gone unfulfilled. To be sure, some promising empirical studies followed (Beer & Boynton, 2004; Chilton & Lakoff, 1995; Chilton, 1996a, 1996b; Costigliola, 1997; Flanik, 2013; Luoma-aho, 2004; Milliken, 1996; Schäffner, 1995; Shimko, 2004; Slingerland et al., 2007). And Flanik (2011), Oppermann and Spencer (2013), and Bougher (2012) have tried to integrate metaphor into mainstream FPDM. But FPDM’s metaphor research program has few empirically grounded, middle-range theories. It’s little wonder that FPDM hasn’t yet embraced metaphor alongside analogy.

What we do have, though, is a robust body of converging evidence from the cognitive sciences on the existence and effects of analogy and metaphor. To be sure, not all cognitive scientists agree on the particulars of analogical and metaphorical reasoning.3 And FPDM still has skeptics who view analogy and metaphor as “cheap talk” (for example, Taylor & Rourke, 1995). But convergent evidence from multiple disciplines places the burden on skeptics to show that policymakers don’t reason analogically and metaphorically (Khong, 1992, p. 14; Mutimer, 1997, pp. 195–196).

The Socio-Cognitive Approach to Analogy and Metaphor

If analogy and metaphor aren’t epiphenomena, then what exactly are they? FPDM follows cognitive science in treating analogies and metaphors primarily as cognitive constructs. Metaphor and analogy are thought to be conceptual phenomena, and only derivatively a matter of linguistic convention. Lakoff and Johnson are emphatic on this point: “the essence of metaphor, they write, “is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” (2003, p. 5; emphasis in original). The conceptual nature of metaphor gives rise to the name “conceptual metaphor theory,” or CMT.4 CMT contends that language use reflects semantic associations in long-term memory. For instance, the idioms “wasting time,” “saving time,” and “losing time” are linguistic instantiations of the conceptual metaphor time is money.5 Similarly, when policymakers speak of “pressuring China,” “negotiation leverage,” and “the sanctions’ impact,” their words reflect an implicit conceptual metaphor—political influence is physical force. Political influence, in other words, is “framed” in concrete, physical terms. Cognitive framing shapes decision making in a number of ways. For instance, if policymakers think of economic sanctions as physical force, they may over-estimate their likelihood of success. If, say, Russia is “hurting” or even “buckling” under the “pressure” of sanctions, then why hasn’t President Putin made concessions on Ukraine to get sanctions “relief?6

The metaphors we use aren’t random; they are motivated by embodied experiences in our social and material worlds. Experiential correlates create “primary metaphors” (Grady, 1999). One example is knowing is seeing (e.g., “I see what you mean;” “Her argument is obscure”). here, the perceptual source domain sight maps onto the target concept knowledge. knowing is seeing arises from experiential correlations between knowledge and sight that are acquired in childhood and bolstered throughout life. Because humans share many aspects of embodied experience, primary metaphors are often consistent across cultures. They also persist over time. “Because they have apparent naturalness and are integrated in complex networks of association,” explains linguist Paul Chilton, “existing metaphors will tend to be preferred and to persist” (1996b, p. 202). In other words, metaphors that resonate with embodied experience are “sticky” (Percy, Hoffmann, & Sherman, 2010).

“Sticky” or not, most conceptual metaphors map structure from concrete, familiar sources (like people, balance, and community) onto abstract, harder-to-grasp targets (like state, power, and interstate system). Without the ability to understand the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar, conceptual change would be impossible (DiMaggio, 1997, p. 281), and most representational knowledge couldn’t exist (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999).

Similar to metaphor, cognitive scientists study analogy as a form of reasoning rather than rhetoric. Kolodner (1993) considers analogical reasoning to be “case-based reasoning.” Instead of deriving conclusions from rules or general principles, decision makers understand and solve novel problems by reference to past experiences. Examples in the foreign policy literature are legion, but Khong’s (1992) Analogies at War remains the most influential case study of analogical reasoning in FPDM. Khong demonstrates that U.S. Under Secretary of State George Ball opposed Johnson’s 1965 Vietnam escalation on the basis of an analogy between American intervention and the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Johnson and his advisers overruled Ball, instead drawing parallels to Munich and the Korean War. Khong convincingly shows that analogical arguments were not just “cheap talk;” policymakers’ positions were inextricable from their historical comparisons. As with metaphor, the point of analogy is to simplify novel policy problems by framing them in familiar terms.

Metaphor and analogy both involve comparing one thing with another, and the same cognitive process of “mapping” underlies them both (Gentner, Bowdle, Wolff, & Boronat, 2001). Mapping entails “the transfer of knowledge from one situation to another by … finding a set of one-to-one correspondences (often incomplete) between aspects of one body of information and aspects of another” (Houghton, 2001, p. 25). There is a crucial difference between the objects of comparison, however. Analogies compare similar things; they are “within-domain” mappings (Shimko, 1994). For instance, a policymaker may compare America’s Vietnam intervention in 1965 to that of the French in 1954. The semantic domains of politics and war are similar for both terms of the analogy. Metaphors, on the other hand, compare things “that lie within very different semantic domains” (Houghton, 2001, p. 36). That is, they attach one thing to something else entirely. When President Johnson spoke of Vietnam going “down the drain,” his metaphor associated two distinct semantic domains: politics and plumbing.7

There is no clear line between “within-domain” and “cross-domain” portrayals, and scholars occasionally conflate the two (Mumford, 2015; Paris, 2002). Moreover, it’s possible for foreign policy frames to have both analogical and metaphorical elements. Clinton, for instance, spoke of NATO’s 1999 Kosovo intervention as “defusing” a “Balkan powder-keg” that had “exploded twice before in Europe with catastrophic results.” “Let a fire burn [in Southeast Europe],” he continued, “and the flames will spread” (Hehir, 2006, p. 74; emphases added). Clinton’s framing combines WWI analogies with conceptual metaphors likening war to explosion and fire. While conceptual metaphor and historical analogy can collocate, in most cases it’s easy to differentiate them. Analogies almost always draw on antecedent events, while metaphor seldom does.

When and How Metaphor and Analogy Shape Foreign Policy Decision Making

Since their “cognitive dynamics are the same,” it’s odd that FPDM treats metaphor and analogy separately (Shimko, 1994, p. 664). This section brings them together while teasing out some likely differences in their effects.

Analogies and Metaphors and Foreign Policy Decision MakingClick to view larger

Figure 1. How analogy and metaphor shape foreign policy decision making.

Figure 1 traces when and how analogy and metaphor shape foreign policy decision making.8 The figure reads from left to right, from causally distant factors to more proximate ones. The funnel contains variables that shape the likelihood and impact of metaphorical and analogical reasoning. Labels in the funnel describe the event or events that precipitate a foreign policy decision. Except for the categorical variable of issue type, higher values increase the likelihood and importance of comparative reasoning, and vice-versa. The diagram’s right-hand side identifies schematic processing of analogies and metaphors as proximate causes. The center of the figure depicts three levels of analysis: the individual, group, and social levels. Dashed arrows from the levels to the human figure show that individual, group, and societal-level factors mediate the impact of metaphor and analogy on decision making. Arrows between the levels indicate their inter-relationships. Groups, for instance are constituted by individuals, and a single member can have a powerful effect on group dynamics. Hence one arrow runs upwards, from the individual to group level. Contrariwise, small decision making groups can have emergent properties that impact members’ choices. The figure illustrates this with an arrow running in the opposite direction, from the group to individual level. Similar relationships obtain between the group and social levels.

Situational Factors

The FPDM literature gives the context of analogical and metaphorical reasoning less attention than its content. Scholars nevertheless make a few general assumptions about the situational factors, which a) predispose policymakers to use metaphor and analogy, and b) increase the chances that these constructs will shape policy choice. Houghton (1998, 2001) describes comparative reasoning as “demand-driven.” The most important variables concern decision makers’ perception of the policy problem. The more ambiguous, complex, and uncertain the problem, the more often policymakers will reach for familiar, simplifying metaphors and analogies (Bougher, 2012, p. 148; Houghton, 1996 & 1998; Khong, 1992, chap. 6; Mor, 2016; Vertzberger, 1990, pp. 322–323). This is especially so in times of “conceptual crisis,” like the end of the Cold War, where long-standing templates for understanding and action were in flux (Chilton, 1996b; Klare, 1996; Luoma-aho, 2004; Mumford, 2015, p. 8–9). De Landtsheer and De Vrij (2004) show that foreign policy crises increase the intensity and simplicity of elite metaphorical discourse. Novel situations and highly abstract problems also induce analogical and metaphorical reasoning (Bougher, 2012, p. 148; Houghton, 1996 & 1998; Macdonald, 2000). In the case of analogies, perceived risk is another motivation; the higher the stakes, the more decision-makers “fall back on a higher authority [than themselves or their peers]: history” (Vertzberger, 1990, p. 323). Time pressure often accompanies high-risk decisions. Since analogy and metaphor are cognitive shortcuts, they should play a larger role when time is short (Houghton, 1998, p. 154; Macdonald, 2000, p. 192; Neustadt & May, 1988, p. 50; Peterson, 1997, p. 247; Vertzberger, 1990, pp. 322–323;). Finally, issue type might matter as well: analogies seem most prevalent and influential in security decision making (Khong, 1992, pp. 32–33; Macdonald, 2000; Vertzberger, 1990, p. 323).

Intervening Factors

Situational factors suggest when policymakers reason comparatively, not how. Holding the environment constant, decision makers’ selection and use of comparisons vary (Chilton, 1996b, pp. 67–73; Dyson & Preston, 2006; Goldsmith, 2003; Hybel, 1990). It’s probable that societies, decision making groups, and personal characteristics all shape how likely policymakers are to reason comparatively, which comparisons they use, and/or how they use them. But these intervening variables are poorly understood. FPDM scholars have only begun to study them, and their work deals mostly with analogy rather than metaphor. The findings here are tentative, then—and ripe for elaboration.

Some speculate that societal climate shapes how policymakers use analogy and metaphor (Glad & Taber, 1990, pp. 64–65; Houghton, 1998, p. 154; Shimko, 1994, p. 669; Spector, 1996, pp. 4–5; Tierney, 2007, p. 59; Vertzberger, 1990; pp. 321–323). For example, societies with long histories, cyclical notions of time, and traditions of analogical thought promote reasoning by historical parallel. And states fixated on historical triumphs or defeats will use specific “master analogies” like Munich and Vietnam (Macdonald, 2000). In the sole comparative study to date, however, Macdonald could not attribute variation in analogical use to broad cultural differences between the United States and Britain. And in their cross-national study of metaphor, Slingerland, Blanchard, and Boyd-Judson were struck more by the metaphors that Americans and Chinese shared than by those they didn’t (2007). The authors found cultural differences important largely because they drove “differential use of otherwise shared metaphorical conceptualizations” (p. 71). More work is needed to parse the relationship between culture and comparative reasoning.

The influence of groups is easier to trace. Analogies and metaphors spread quickly among decision-makers through cue-taking (Beer & Boynton, 2004; Breuning, 2003, p. 240; Hehir, 2006, p. 73 Macdonald, 2000). This appears sufficient to overcome individual inhibitions against reasoning analogically (Houghton, 2001, p. 146). Social dynamics alone don’t compel groups to prematurely arrive at a particular inference, as in “groupthink” (Janis, 1972). Members sometimes do contest the validity and/or meaning of analogies and metaphors (Chilton, 1996a; Houghton, 2001; Khong, 1992; Paris, 2002; Peterson, 1997). There remains a danger, though, that group dynamics will exacerbate policymakers’ well-documented tendency to reason poorly. Sub-optimal comparisons are characterized by choosing source domains based on cognitive availability (Tversky & Kahnmeman, 1974), conflating superficial with “structural” similarities between source and target domains (Gentner, 1983), neglecting alternative comparisons, and “substituting analogies [and metaphors] for proof” (Khong, 1992, p. 30).

Individual as well as group characteristics affect comparative reasoning. Dyson and Preston (2006) show that the analogies of leaders scoring highly on Hermann’s (1980) measure of “conceptual complexity” exhibit fewer of the decision making pathologies just listed. Compared to low-complexity individuals, these leaders more frequently draw historical parallels from cultures and time periods different from their own.

Since analogical retrieval is shaped by availability, policymakers should, ceteris paribus, recruit source domains from events they personally observed or participated in (Jervis, 1976, pp. 239–256; Khong, 1992, pp. 32–35; Neustadt & May, 1988, pp. 157–160; Vertzberger, 1990, pp. 345–346;). The evidence is unexpectedly mixed: Houghton (2001) found strong correlations between policymakers’ personal experience and their analogies, while Dyson and Preston found that expert and novice leaders alike draw mainly from generally available rather than personally experienced events (2006). The former type of analogizing is, however, subject to generational effects (Schuman & Rieger, 1992).

And yet, policymakers of the same generation sometimes frame the same situation with different comparisons (for example, Khong, 1992). Even when leaders use identical analogies and metaphors, they differ on their meaning and policy implications. For instance, was the “lesson” of Vietnam that the United States should withdraw early from unwinnable wars, or that it shouldn’t wage limited wars against committed adversaries (Lefebvre, 1994, pp. 85–86; see also Macdonald, 2000; Paris, 2002, Record, 2002)? Analogies aren’t self-evident. Policymakers also disagree on metaphorical entailments. For instance, the Strategic Defense Initiative was conceptualized as a shield by both its advocates and detractors. They differed, though, on whether a partially effective shield was better than none at all (Flanik, 2013). We don’t know exactly why policymakers from similar backgrounds interpret and use analogies and metaphors differently. Possible explanations include conceptual complexity (Dyson & Preston, 2006), personal experience, ideology (Mumford, 2015), and pre-existing beliefs (Rosati & Campbell, 2015).

Schematic Processing of Metaphor and Analogy

The FPDM literature on analogy, and to a lesser extent metaphor, is often focused on the individual level. Scholars in this vein follow Nisbett and Ross (1980) in assuming that decision-makers are “cognitive misers” attempting to economize finite mental capacity. Rather than process stimuli de novo, decision makers assimilate them to pre-existing schemas retrieved from long-term memory. A schema is “the set of cognitions related to some concept” (Kuklinski, Luskin, & Bolland, 1991, p. 1342). Schemata bias attention, encoding, and recall—they persist over time (even in the face of discrepant evidence), and they permit decision makers to “go beyond” given information with schema-based inferences. The logic is aprioristic, and can be represented as: A:B:AY:BY. In other words, assume that source domain A is, or resembles, target domain B. If source A has characteristic Y, then one infers that target B has Y as well. The inference is implicit, because schematic cognition is automatic, rapid, and unconscious (DiMaggio, 1997, p. 271).

Analogy and metaphor are instantiations of schemata (Allbritton, 1995; Brunk, 2008, pp. 304–305; Houghton, 2001, pp. 26–27; Oppermann & Spencer, 2013; Reiter, 1996, pp. 21–24; Saltzman, 2016, p. 48; Shimko, 1994, pp. 660–661). Experimental work shows that subjects automatically process metaphorical/analogical meaning (Glucksberg, Gildea, & Bookin, 1982), that they attend to information and draw inferences consistent with metaphorical and analogical priming (Landau, Meier, & Keefer, 2010; Thibodeau & Boroditsky, 2011, 2013; Thibodeau, 2016), and that they are often unaware of the role that metaphors and analogies play in their decision making (Markman & Moreau, 2001). In fact, in the case of metaphor, subjects often don’t recognize non-literal content as metaphorical in the first place (Thibodeau & Boroditsky, 2013).

The FPDM literature is consistent with laboratory findings. Policymakers, for instance, needn’t use metaphor and analogy intentionally, or even consciously. Implicitness is clear in the case of metaphor because the great majority of metaphorical schemata—international community, power vacuums, and so on—are naturalized in foreign policy discourse. Their ubiquity and apparent naturalness shield their metaphorical nature from conscious awareness (Chilton, 1996b; Chilton & Lakoff, 1995). Moreover, both metaphors and historical analogies can become conventionalized to the point where they needn’t be invoked explicitly to shape deliberation. Hinting at a widely-accepted “lesson” derived from an analogy, or using a “catchphrase” associated with an analogy or metaphor, is sufficient to evoke a frame (Neustadt & May, 1988, pp. 68–70; see also Mumford, 2015, p. 9; Paris, 2002, pp. 440–441, and Shimko, 2004, p. 207). The utterance “never again,” for example, triggers the Holocaust analogy. Analogies and metaphors are schematic in another respect. That is, policymakers cling to their frames despite compelling counter-arguments and/or clear evidence that the policy entailed by the frame is failing (Glad & Taber, 1990; Houghton, 2001; Khong, 1992; Macdonald, 2000; May, 1973). However, the schematic nature of analogy and metaphor doesn’t prevent them from featuring in slow, explicit, and deliberative reasoning (Neustadt & May, 1988).

The discussion so far has been limited to “cold” cognition, or reasoning without affect. But cognitive scientists like Damásio (1994) and Thagard and Kroon (2006) increasingly view thinking and feeling as inextricable, and political psychologists are modifying their work accordingly (for example, McDermott, 2004; Mercer, 2010; Neuman et al., 2007). Whereas analogical reasoning in particular was once wedded to a “cold” information-processing framework (Khong, 1992), scholars now assume that affect as well as information is linked from source to target domains (Bougher, 2012, p. 155; Desch, 2006, p. 111; Gregg, 2004, p. 62; Houghton, 2012; McDermott, 2004, pp. 695–696; Paris, 2002, p. 428). The pathos of metaphor and analogy is a key rhetorical tool, of course (De Landtsheer & De Vrij, 2004; Mumford, 2015), but it factors into decision making, too. The Cuban Missile Crisis offers a good illustration. President Kennedy ruled out immediate air strikes against Cuba in large part due to parallels he perceived between a “surprise” American attack and Japan’s assault on Pearl Harbor. This was the effect of the famous “Pearl Harbor in reverse” analogy (Tierney, 2007). It’s likely that the shock, anger, and disgust associated with Pearl Harbor were projected onto an American attack on Cuba, inducing Kennedy to choose a naval blockade instead.

Schemas “filter” incoming information. “By shaping the patterns of perception through which people categorize and make sense out of events,” analogy and metaphor “direct attention to certain aspects of those events while making other aspects appear less relevant or visible” (Costigliola, 1997, p. 164). In other words, metaphors and analogies shape the cognitive and affective salience of decision inputs (Flanik, 2011, p. 437). As the salience of a datum rises, decision-makers are more likely to perceive it, process it, and remember it (Entman, 1993, p. 53).

Cognitive salience changes when a metaphor or analogy “highlights” parts of a target domain that cohere with the source domain and “hides” those that don’t. Take the common conceptual metaphor states are persons. This frame foregrounds source domain-consistent features like intentionality (“Russia thinks that …”) and corporeality (“Myanmar is hurting”). On the other hand, the metaphor conceals target domain characteristics that clash with the source. If a state is a person, for instance, its multiple decision making units (bureaucracies, political parties, etc.) become less salient. Such personification can desensitize decision makers to the complexities of other actors’ domestic politics. Historical analogies “highlight” select features of a situation and “hide” others—often to disastrous effect. This was the case during the Iran Hostage Crisis. Proponents of Carter’s ill-fated hostage rescue mission were swayed by Israel’s successful raid at the Entebbe airport four years earlier. The problem was that the American embassy, unlike the Entebbe airport, was in the middle of a densely populated city, far from any U.S. military bases (Houghton, 2001). The main pitfall of comparative reasoning is that surface-level similarities between target and source domains often overshadow more fundamental differences. Policymakers “move from the realization that something is like something else to assuming that something is exactly like something else” (Shimko, 1994, p. 666, emphases added). Given that metaphors and analogies are schemata, it’s no surprise that their retrieval and activation is subject to Tversky and Kahnmeman’s celebrated “representativeness heuristic” (1974).

Unlike cognitive salience, affective salience hinges on policymakers’ emotions regarding the source domains that structure decision inputs. I’ve speculated that the “Pearl Harbor in reverse” analogy triggered traumatic memories of Japan’s surprise attack in President Kennedy and other members of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm). Pearl Harbor’s emotional salience may have downplayed the many ways in which Japan’s assault differed from the strike that ExComm was contemplating (Tierney, 2007). Similarly, Holocaust analogies highlight viscerally compelling yet structurally superficial similarities between events, such as victims’ appearance and how they were killed. U.S. policymakers’ tendency to equate various humanitarian emergencies to the Holocaust elides significant differences between them and could increase the likelihood of military intervention (Desch, 2006). As is often the case in decision making, the affective punch of vivid stimuli overrides more diagnostic information (Reiter, 1996, pp. 26–29; Tierney, 2007, p. 75; Vertzberger, 1990, p. 330).

Neuroscientist Antonio Damásio’s work illustrates the micro-foundations of these and other cases. Damásio (1994) argues that embodied experiences induce affective states that the brain stores as “somatic markers” of those experiences. Affectively salient (or “hot”) frames evoke strong somatic images and their corresponding markers. Examples include analogies to distressing events like Vietnam—especially personally experienced events (Houghton, 2012, p. 165), as well as metaphors of disease (Ivie, 1999) and gender (Cohn, 1987; Costigliola, 1997; Masters, 2005). When connected with target concepts, “hot” frames evoke “fundamental motives and feelings [linked to] survival, control, and comfort” (Gregg, 2004, p. 62). Laboratory studies show that emotional states like these can have powerful decision making effects (for example, Druckman & McDermott, 2008).

Policy Effects of Analogy and Metaphor

Table 1. Analogical and Metaphorical Decision Making.

Analogies and Metaphors and Foreign Policy Decision Making

Source: Adapted from Flanik (2011).

Table 1 summarizes the arguments in this section. It outlines the assumptions I’ve made about actors, on the one hand, and metaphorical and analogical schemata, on the other. It then decomposes individual-level decision making into three ideal-typical stages: a) problem-setting, that is, forming a representation of a situation thought to be blocking the attainment of policy goals (Voss, 1998, p. 9); b) option formulation, or identifying ways to overcome the problem; and c) option evaluation, which refers to judging the desirability of potential courses of action.

Although both shape decision making, historical analogies might be more important than metaphors at the option formulation and evaluation stages (Campbell, 2015, p. 2; Khong, 1992, p. 253; Oppermann & Spencer, 2013, pp. 45–46; Schlesinger & Lau, 2000, p. 612; Shimko, 1994 & 1995). Recall that analogies compare similar domains, whereas metaphors compare different ones. Analogies offer a closer “match,” so they should give more specific policy guidance. Metaphors, on the other hand, are more “abstract and remote” (Shimko, 1994, p. 665). Shimko illustrates this by juxtaposing the Munich analogy and the domino metaphor. The former gave Truman detailed prescriptions for dealing with the Communist invasion of South Korea in 1950: the policies that would have stopped Hitler would presumably stop Stalin, whereas the policies that failed to stop Hitler would only feed Soviet aggression. By contrast, the domino metaphor:

was invoked because of certain perceived similarities between the imagery of falling dominoes lined up in a row and the geopolitical situation confronting policymakers. The most important resemblance was some sort of recognition of interconnectedness or interdependence: the idea that events in one country or area will have an impact on those around it, and that even developments in unimportant areas will eventually have ramifications for important areas. The idea of strategic interdependence was the cornerstone of the domino metaphor. But unlike the Munich analogy, the domino metaphor in itself does not really offer policy advice. It does not, for example, entail the belief that it is better to stop the dominoes from falling earlier rather than later. The domino metaphor does not tell you why, how, or when to stop the cascade.

(Shimko, 1994, p. 666)

Rather than give specific policy prescriptions, metaphors provide a general policy framing. The point is not that analogies don’t also have powerful framing effects (see Houghton, 2001, p. 156; Macdonald, 2000, p. 2; Mefford, 1986, p. 222), but that they should be more important than metaphor as policymakers formulate and consider their options.

The first and most fundamental impact that analogies and metaphors have on decision making is to frame policy problems (Allbritton, 1995, p. 36; Chilton, 1996b, p. 71; Khong, 1992; Lau & Schlesinger, 2005; Macdonald, 2000, p. 2; Mutimer, 1997, p. 193; Shimko, 1994; Vertzberger, 1990, p. 298). At the problem-setting stage, metaphors and analogies constitute decision makers’ representations of the situation. By highlighting and hiding potential decision inputs, these frames help actors select certain things as problems and identify their causes (Schlesinger & Lau, 2000, pp. 612–614). George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” and subsequent “X article” are textbook cases of metaphorical problem setting. Kennan’s conceptual metaphors framed the Soviet Union as a container from which influence ineluctably “flow[ed] out” and “penetrate[d]” free nations. The solution was to use U.S. “pressure” to “hold in” Soviet influence (Chilton, 1996b, pp. 133–153, 206–207). When Truman chose to counter North Korea’s invasion of South Korea with force, he saw the situation in analogical terms, comparing Communist aggression with Hitler’s conquests of the 1930s (May, 1973). Metaphors and historical analogies also shape the affective salience of a problem, as when U.S. General Schwarzkopf framed Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait as rape. (Lakoff, 1991). Similarly, when Vietnam veterans like Colin Powell warn of “quagmires,” they can evoke wrenching images of hamstrung G.I.s dying vainly in distant jungles for a cause that relatively few Americans believed in, let alone understood (Record, 2002).

The way a problem is construed affects how policy options are formulated and evaluated. Analogical and metaphorical frames therefore shape subsequent decision making processes. As with the problem setting stage, both cognitive and affective influences are at work. In the cognitive sense, metaphor and analogy matter insofar as identified policy options, and actors’ evaluation of those options, cohere with the problem frame. For example, Munich analogies imply either “appeasement” or “standing firm” against aggressors. The ideal choice is obvious when the problem is cast in these terms. Similarly, if policymakers frame the U.S. homeland as a vulnerable container, then the best options should reduce America’s “exposure” to “penetration” from “outside” forces. Frame-coherent solutions include building a “wall” (against illegal migrants, say), or erecting a national “shield” or “umbrella” (to defend against ballistic missiles). Coherence between problem frames and policy options is emotional as well as conceptual. During the debate over Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, for example, the program’s supporters framed American vulnerability to missile attack as nudity. They described U.S. “nakedness” to attack as “shocking” and “absurd.”9 “Clothing” the body politic in the mantle of strategic defense thereby acquired a strong positive valence.

Beyond Rationalism

Table 1 includes the claim that analogies and metaphors “constitute identities and interests.” FPDM seldom explores the constitutive properties of metaphor and analogy. The literature reviewed here typically operates—tacitly or explicitly—from rationalist premises. Though it rejects pure rationality, it brackets interest and identity formation and explores how analogical and metaphorical schemas shape individuals’ pursuit of their pre-constituted interests (Hemmer, 2000). This approach is helpful for showing that cognitive psychology explains more than structural accounts of foreign policy. But it conceals the depth at which analogy and metaphor operate. Because they constitute the concepts decision-makers reason from, metaphor and analogy can create identities and interests themselves.

Metaphor, for instance, constitutes identities along binaries like civilizeddeviant, in the case of rogue state; parent ⁄ child, in the case of post-colonial relationships between metropole and periphery (Akioye, 1994, p. 12) and male ⁄ female, in the case of relations between nuclear-armed states and their nonnuclear allies (Cohn, 1987, p. 696). Metaphor shapes Europeans’ understanding of the European Union (Drulák, 2006; Hülsse, 2006). It also constitutes schematic “images” of other states, like “barbarian” and “degenerate” (for example, Herrmann et al., 1997). National interests, moreover, are formed in part by metaphors like prestige and reputation (Milliken, 1996). And these concepts themselves hinge on the more basic metaphor states are persons. One could plausibly argue that it’s metaphors all the way down.10

Historical analogies also have constitutive properties. Reagan’s behavior regarding the American hostages in Lebanon illustrates this point (Hemmer, 2000). Reagan was arguably as obsessed as Carter was with securing the release of American hostages in the Middle East. What compelled Reagan to barter arms for hostages, however, was his determination to avoid looking “weak” the way his predecessor had. “The analogy to Carter’s problems during the [Beirut] Hostage Crisis did not help Reagan ‘solve the problem’ of how to free the hostages; instead, it made solving that particular problem a primary goal of the president” (p. 270) The analogy to the Iran Hostage Crisis increased the intensity of Reagan’s interest in the first place.

The discussion so far follows cognitive psychology in confining analogy and metaphor to the individual level. But cognitive science does not reduce analogy and metaphor solely to cognition—they also have pragmatic, rhetorical, linguistic, and cultural dimensions (Chilton, 1996a; Kövecses, 2005). In FPA, social constructivists rightly note that analogy and metaphor are shared by communities of meaning (Drulák, 2006; Hülsse, 2006). The intersubjectivity of metaphor and analogy doesn’t preclude psychological explanations of their foreign policy effects.11 It does, however, require reformulating the strict rationalism of much of the FPDM literature. Recent works by Breuning (2012), Hemmer (2000), Houghton (2012), Flanik (2011, 2013), and Tierney (2007) are promising steps in this direction.

Of course, there are limits to how much FPDM can accommodate alternative frameworks. Once we move beyond mainstream constructivism towards discursive approaches, analogy and metaphor lose their cognitive status and become representations in foreign policy discourse (for example, Hodges, 2011, p. 21; Hülsse, 2006, p. 404; Mutimer, 2008, p. 116). Rather than trace decision making, analysts aim to “show the manifest political consequences of adopting one mode of representation over another” (Campbell, 1992, p. 4). At the extreme, discourse is all that matters, and policymakers themselves vanish from the story. Since FPDM pre-supposes the importance of individual decision-makers (Hudson, 2005), it seems reasonable to draw the line here. But maybe this boundary should be provisional. There could be much to gain from dialogue between cognitive, constructivist, and discursive approaches (see Blanchard, 2012, p. 156; Chilton, 2005).


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(1.) Social constructivists fall on both sides of this divide; some occupy intermediate positions. See, Drulák, 2006; Flanik, 2011; Hülsse and Spencer, 2008; Kornprobst, Pouliot, Shah, and Zaiotti, 2008.

(2.) Paul Chilton’s work (1996a and 1996b) is perhaps the best example.

(3.) Lakoff and Johnson’s approach is particularly controversial. For critiques, see McGlone, 2007; Murphy 1997; Valenzuela and Soriano, 2005; Vervaeke and Kennedy, 1996, 2004.

(4.) CMT isn’t the only cognitive theory of metaphor, but it is the most influential (Reimer and Camp, 2006, p. 845).

(5.) Conceptual metaphor theorists typically use small capital letters to denote conceptual metaphors. I follow that convention here.

(6.) STRATFOR, “Russia begins to buckle under sanctions pressure.” September 16, 2015.

(7.) Lyndon B. Johnson, quoted in The American Presidency Project, “397: Remarks to the International Platform Association upon receiving the association’s annual award.” August 3, 1965.

(8.) The diagram and accompanying discussion illustrate central tendencies in cognitive FPDM and are not exhaustive.

(9.) For example, Sen. Don Nickles (R-Oklahoma), quoted in Congressional Record, 133(140), S12151, September 16, 1987.

(10.) This comes close to Lakoff and Johnson’s (1999) position.

(11.) On the complementarity of constructivism and cognition generally, see DiMaggio, 1997; Shannon and Kowert, 2012; Slingerland, 2008.