Ground Abstract Ideas Using Examples and Analogies

“Abstraction demands some concrete foundation. Trying to reach an abstract principle without concrete foundations is like trying to start a house by building a roof in the air.”

- Heath and Heath, p. 106

Abstraction refers to linking tangible objects (e.g., products, retailers) or acts (e.g., buying a product, using a service) to broader, intangible categories (e.g., consumption, the economy; Rosch 1999; Spiggle 1994; Trope and Liberman 2010). Scholars write about abstract concepts, such as brand experience, satisfaction, and consumption. Concrete concepts, in contrast, are things that we can see, feel, taste, smell, and hear, like a brick building, grease fire, or puddle of melted ice cream. At a restaurant, customers can smell the caramelized onions, taste the flank steak, and feel the broken spring poking their leg through the seat cushion. They can feel a wet, burning sensation if the waiter spills coffee on their lap, and hear his half-hearted apology as they begin to thumb-type a one-star review into the Yelp app on their phone. This negative dining experience may have left the customers feeling unsatisfied, but they cannot hold a “negative experience” in their hand, nor can they pick up “dissatisfaction” and eat it, because these concepts are abstract.

Abstract language can prevent a research article from being cited, but an article devoid of abstraction won’t even get sent out for review. Some abstract language is necessary because researchers need to write about generalizable constructs and the relationships between them (i.e., theory; Trope 2004). Just as you wouldn’t want to start a house by building a roof in the air, you also don’t want to leave the house roofless. But the key to good writing, like carpentry, is to start by building a solid foundation. Good writing, however, relies on different tools than carpentry: instead of stucco and brick, you’ll need to use examples and analogies.

Examples, far more than definitions, provide the pillars to support an abstract idea. Observe the way that Kirmani et al. (2017) introduce traits related to competence and morality:

“Consumers often make trade-offs like these between competence- and morality-related traits when deciding among service providers such as politicians, real estate agents, auto mechanics, and accountants. The evening news may reveal that a highly effective politician has committed adultery; an acquaintance may disclose that an award-winning real estate agent cheated on her taxes; and online reviews may suggest that a skilled auto mechanic demeans his coworkers” (Kirmani et al. 2017, 103).

The examples in this paragraph help readers relate abstract and potentially unfamiliar concepts (e.g., competence- and morality-related traits) to experiences they better understand (e.g., learning that a real estate agent won an award but cheated on her taxes).

Concrete examples are an especially effective tool to help readers understand abstract theories. For example, Hoffman and Novak (2018, 1179) teach readers about assemblage theory by describing how Lilah, Collin, and Noah, three imaginary members of a family, interact with Philips Hue color-changing LED lightbulbs, Amazon Echo, the LG Rolling Bot, and smartphone apps like IFTTT and Spotify. By illustrating the way that the products, software, and human beings relate to and change one another’s behavior, Hoffman and Novak help readers understand the core ideas of assemblage theory without relying on abstract, technical words. Compare their description to Wikipedia’s: “Assemblage theory provides a bottom-up framework for analyzing social complexity by emphasizing fluidity, exchangeability, and multiple functionalities through entities and their connectivity. Assemblage theory asserts that, within a body, the relationships of component parts are not stable and fixed; rather, they can be displaced and replaced within and among other bodies, thus approaching systems through relations of exteriority” (“Assemblage Theory” 2018).

Like pillars, examples are more effective when they are made of concrete rather than quicksand. Consider the following examples of transitivity. Quicksand: “For example, if consumer A likes product X more than product Y and likes product Y more than product Z, then he should also like product X more than product Z.” Concrete: “For example, if Jack enjoys drinking whiskey more than wine, and enjoys drinking wine more than buttermilk, then he should also enjoy drinking whiskey more than buttermilk.” Because researchers think abstractly about their research, they all-too-often give examples made of quicksand (e.g., “an option that performs well on attribute A but poorly on attribute B”) rather than concrete (e.g., “a car that looks nice but costs too much”). With extra effort, readers might be able to decode quicksand examples involving products X, Y, and Z with attributes A and B. But they can more easily picture whiskey, wine, buttermilk, and cars that are expensive yet pretty. Thus, one way to help readers understand your research is to use examples made of concrete rather than quicksand. Being concrete is important because if an example brings an idea only from the stars to the clouds, it will still look like fog to readers on the ground.

Analogies—like our metaphor about stars, clouds, and fog—offer an additional tool to help writers make abstract ideas easier to understand (Lakoff and Johnson 1980). Analogies explain something that you want readers to understand (a target domain) by relating it to something that they already know (a base domain; Dahl and Moreau 2002; Gregan‐Paxton and John 1997). We sprinkled analogies throughout this tutorial: adding technical language to an article is like adding salt to cookie dough, writing an academic article is like building a house, using an abstract example to explain an idea is like using quicksand to support your house.

Analogies can help your readers transfer what they have learned from familiar actions, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings to an unfamiliar domain (Gregan‐Paxton and John 1997). Fournier (1998) helped readers understand anthropomorphization, brand loyalty, and dynamic post-purchase behaviors by using a simple, yet powerful, analogy: brand relationships. Cotte, Ratneshwar, and Mick (2004) similarly used analogies to describe the different ways in which consumers think about time: “time is a pressure cooker,” “time is a map,” “time is a mirror,” and “time is a feast.” Readers would have been less likely to understand if Cotte et al. had instead relied on abstract labels like “constrictive time perspective,” “navigational time perspective,” “reflective time perspective,” and “gluttonous time perspective.”

Additional Reading

Made to Stick (Heath and Heath 2007): Ch. 3: “Concrete”

Sense of Style (Pinker 2014a): Ch. 3, “Curse of Knowledge”

Writing Tools (Clark 2008)

----Tool 22, “Climb Up and Down the Ladder of Abstraction”

----Tool 14, “Get the Name of the Dog”

Language in Action (Hayakawa 1939): Ch. 8: “How We Know What We Know”

Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff and Johnson 1980): Ch. 1: “Concepts We Live By”