What Is Metaphorical Thinking? Metaphorical Thinking In A Nutshell

Metaphorical thinking describes a mental process in which comparisons are made between qualities of objects usually considered to be separate classifications.  Metaphorical thinking is a mental process connecting two different universes of meaning and is the result of the mind looking for similarities.

Metaphorical ThinkingMetaphorical thinking is a cognitive process in which abstract or complex concepts are understood, explained, or represented by analogies to more familiar or concrete concepts. It involves drawing parallels between two unrelated domains to gain insights or understanding.
Description– Metaphors are figures of speech that highlight similarities between two seemingly dissimilar things. Metaphorical thinking extends this concept to the way individuals understand and make sense of abstract or complex ideas.
Usage– People use metaphors in everyday language and thinking to explain or convey abstract concepts. – Metaphorical thinking is employed in creative problem-solving, communication, and conceptual understanding.
Examples– Describing time as “money” (e.g., “Time is money”) is a common metaphorical way to highlight the value and limited nature of time. – Viewing an organization as a “well-oiled machine” suggests efficiency and coordination.
Benefits– Metaphorical thinking can make complex or abstract ideas more accessible and relatable. – It enhances creativity by encouraging novel associations and insights. – Metaphors can aid in conveying complex information effectively.
Limitations– Overreliance on metaphors can lead to oversimplification and may not capture the full complexity of certain concepts. – Different metaphors can lead to contrasting interpretations, potentially causing confusion.
Metaphors in Culture– Metaphors are prevalent in cultural expressions, literature, and art, shaping how societies perceive and understand the world. – They can reflect cultural values, beliefs, and perspectives.
Cognitive Science– Cognitive linguists and psychologists study metaphors to explore how they structure thought and influence decision-making. – The “conceptual metaphor theory” is a prominent framework in this field.
Metaphorical Creativity– Metaphorical thinking is fundamental in creative processes, such as poetry, advertising, and art. – It enables the recombination of ideas and the exploration of novel perspectives, fostering innovation.
In SumMetaphorical thinking is a powerful cognitive tool that aids in understanding, communication, and creative problem-solving by drawing connections between unrelated domains. It enriches language and thought, providing new ways to interpret and relate to the world.

Understanding metaphorical thinking

An expert metaphorical thinker can sense the hidden connections between these classifications in a way that is creative or even poetic.

Each connection is made by identifying similarities, which is a natural tendency of the human mind.

When director Ridley Scott was pitching the idea for his new movie Alien, he described it with the three-word metaphor “Jaws in space”.

Here, Scott made an apparently unrelated connection between a previous movie about killer sharks and outer space. 

In addition to connecting unrelated objects, metaphors similarly connect problems with unrelated or dissimilar problems and situations. Metaphorical thinking can be used to address predominantly logical thinking, which can stifle the creative process.

Lastly, metaphors themselves help the individual approach something from a different perspective or encourage their audience to do the same. 

How does metaphorical thinking help creativity?

Metaphorical thinking encourages creative thinking by reframing the situation or problem in three ways. That is, metaphors:

Identify similarities between two disparate problems

By analysing seemingly unrelated problems, new insights may emerge which have the potential to solve the original problem.

Examine the problem in a new context

In this case, a new or different perspective may reveal a viable alternative or unusual approach to solving the original problem.

Force practitioners to search outside their existing body of knowledge and comfort zone

Metaphorical thinking allows the individual to put distance between themselves and their problem.

This important sense of perspective gives them the freedom to question their assumptions, habits, biases, or stereotypes in search of a solution.

Metaphorical thinking in business

While the applications of metaphorical thinking in business are limitless, there are two broad ways they can be used.

1 – Metaphors make the strange familiar

Here, businesses help consumers make sense of the unfamiliar by comparing it to something relatable.

In technology, metaphorical thinking was used to describe new products such as the mouse, desktop, Windows, and Facebook. 

During brainstorming sessions designed to solve problems, teams may also benefit from reducing the problem or process into something so familiar a child could comprehend. 

2 – Metaphors make the familiar strange 

Organizations can use this approach to help employees or consumers gain a new appreciation for something they’ve taken for granted. 

For example, a company selling shampoo in a market where consumers tend to stick with one brand may use metaphors to encourage consumers to try something new.

That is, marketing campaigns may be based on metaphors describing resistance to change, such as:

  • Getting children to eat their vegetables.
  • Trying to give the cat a bath.
  • Converting people to a new religion.

Brainstorming can also be used here to force teams into multiplicity, or the process of analyzing a problem from multiple points of view.

When the team is forced to look at an old problem with a fresh perspective, the likelihood of finding a solution increases. 

The “new point of view” brainstorming technique is one such example. It advocates the creation of metaphors by imagining how professionals in vastly unrelated fields might solve the problem at hand.

Case Studies

  • Technology Product Names: Companies often use metaphorical thinking when naming new technology products. For instance:
    • Mouse: The computer mouse is named after the small rodent because of its physical resemblance. This metaphor makes the device’s function and usage more relatable to users.
    • Desktop: Referring to the computer interface as a “desktop” creates a metaphor that helps users understand how to organize and interact with digital files, much like a physical desktop.
    • Windows: The term “windows” in computing is a metaphor for the graphical user interface, where users can open, close, and view different “windows” into their digital world.
  • Marketing Campaigns: Metaphorical thinking is often employed in marketing to make products or concepts more relatable or appealing:
    • Shampoo Marketing: A shampoo company may use metaphors to encourage consumers to try a new product. For example, they might compare switching shampoos to convincing a child to eat their vegetables, highlighting the benefits of change.
    • Insurance Advertising: Insurance companies might use metaphors to explain complex policies to customers. They could liken a policy to a safety net or a shield, making the concept of insurance more understandable.
  • Problem-Solving Workshops: During brainstorming sessions or problem-solving workshops, teams can benefit from metaphorical thinking in two ways:
    • Making the Strange Familiar: When dealing with complex or unfamiliar problems, teams can use metaphors to simplify the issues. By comparing the problem to something familiar, like a child’s game or a common household task, they can gain new perspectives and insights.
    • Making the Familiar Strange: To encourage creativity, teams can use metaphors to challenge conventional thinking. For instance, they can imagine how professionals from completely unrelated fields might approach the problem. This “new point of view” brainstorming technique promotes innovative solutions.
  • Corporate Culture and Communication: Metaphorical thinking can help shape corporate culture and communication strategies:
    • Culture Shaping: Leaders can use metaphors to describe the desired culture of the organization. For example, they might use metaphors related to teamwork, such as “we’re all rowing in the same boat,” to emphasize collaboration.
    • Internal Communication: Metaphors can be used in internal communications to make complex strategies or changes more accessible to employees. Comparing a new initiative to a relay race, where each department passes the baton, can help employees understand their role in a larger process.
  • Product Development: Metaphorical thinking can play a role in product development:
    • Design Inspiration: When designing a new product, engineers and designers may use metaphors to inspire creative solutions. For example, a team working on a camera might draw inspiration from the metaphor of the human eye.
    • User Experience: Metaphors can guide the user experience of a product. Smartphone interfaces, for instance, often incorporate metaphors related to physical objects like books (e-books), files (file management), and folders (digital organization).

Key takeaways

  • Metaphorical thinking is a mental process connecting two different universes of meaning and is the result of the mind looking for similarities.
  • Metaphorical thinking unearths the hidden connections between problems, objects, or situations in a way that is creative or even poetic.
  • Metaphorical thinking was used to introduce less-understood technological products such as the mouse, desktop, and Windows operating system. The concept can also be used to increase new product visibility and consider a problem from multiple points of view.

Metaphorical Thinking Highlights:

  • Definition: Metaphorical thinking is a cognitive process that involves making comparisons between qualities of objects typically considered separate classifications. It connects two different realms of meaning by identifying hidden similarities.
  • Expert Metaphorical Thinking: Expert metaphorical thinkers can creatively perceive connections between seemingly unrelated classifications. This is achieved by recognizing shared characteristics, which is a natural tendency of the human mind.
  • Creativity through Metaphorical Thinking:
    • Identifying Similarities: Metaphorical thinking identifies similarities between disparate problems, leading to new insights and potential solutions.
    • New Context Exploration: It examines problems from different contexts, revealing alternative perspectives and innovative approaches.
    • Outside Comfort Zones: Metaphorical thinking pushes individuals outside their comfort zones, enabling them to question assumptions and biases for novel solutions.
  • Application in Business:
    • Making the Strange Familiar: Businesses help consumers understand the unfamiliar by comparing it to relatable concepts. Technology product names like “mouse,” “desktop,” and “Windows” used metaphorical thinking to bridge understanding gaps.
    • Making the Familiar Strange: Organizations use metaphors to provide fresh perspectives on familiar topics. Marketing campaigns can leverage metaphors to encourage consumers to try new products or approaches.
  • Brainstorming with Metaphorical Thinking:
    • Brainstorming sessions can employ metaphors to approach problems differently.
    • New Point of View Technique: Imagine solutions from the perspective of professionals in unrelated fields.
  • Key Takeaway: Metaphorical thinking is a powerful cognitive tool that uncovers hidden connections between disparate concepts, fostering creativity, fresh perspectives, and innovative problem-solving. It is widely applicable in business and various problem-solving contexts.

Connected Thinking Frameworks

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

Convergent thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be found by applying established rules and logical reasoning. Whereas divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. Where convergent thinking might work for larger, mature organizations where divergent thinking is more suited for startups and innovative companies.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves analyzing observations, facts, evidence, and arguments to form a judgment about what someone reads, hears, says, or writes.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Lindy Effect

The Lindy Effect is a theory about the ageing of non-perishable things, like technology or ideas. Popularized by author Nicholas Nassim Taleb, the Lindy Effect states that non-perishable things like technology age – linearly – in reverse. Therefore, the older an idea or a technology, the same will be its life expectancy.


Antifragility was first coined as a term by author, and options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Antifragility is a characteristic of systems that thrive as a result of stressors, volatility, and randomness. Therefore, Antifragile is the opposite of fragile. Where a fragile thing breaks up to volatility; a robust thing resists volatility. An antifragile thing gets stronger from volatility (provided the level of stressors and randomness doesn’t pass a certain threshold).

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a holistic means of investigating the factors and interactions that could contribute to a potential outcome. It is about thinking non-linearly, and understanding the second-order consequences of actions and input into the system.

Vertical Thinking

Vertical thinking, on the other hand, is a problem-solving approach that favors a selective, analytical, structured, and sequential mindset. The focus of vertical thinking is to arrive at a reasoned, defined solution.

Maslow’s Hammer

Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as the law of the instrument or the Einstellung effect, is a cognitive bias causing an over-reliance on a familiar tool. This can be expressed as the tendency to overuse a known tool (perhaps a hammer) to solve issues that might require a different tool. This problem is persistent in the business world where perhaps known tools or frameworks might be used in the wrong context (like business plans used as planning tools instead of only investors’ pitches).

Peter Principle

The Peter Principle was first described by Canadian sociologist Lawrence J. Peter in his 1969 book The Peter Principle. The Peter Principle states that people are continually promoted within an organization until they reach their level of incompetence.

Straw Man Fallacy

The straw man fallacy describes an argument that misrepresents an opponent’s stance to make rebuttal more convenient. The straw man fallacy is a type of informal logical fallacy, defined as a flaw in the structure of an argument that renders it invalid.

Streisand Effect

The Streisand Effect is a paradoxical phenomenon where the act of suppressing information to reduce visibility causes it to become more visible. In 2003, Streisand attempted to suppress aerial photographs of her Californian home by suing photographer Kenneth Adelman for an invasion of privacy. Adelman, who Streisand assumed was paparazzi, was instead taking photographs to document and study coastal erosion. In her quest for more privacy, Streisand’s efforts had the opposite effect.


As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Recognition Heuristic

The recognition heuristic is a psychological model of judgment and decision making. It is part of a suite of simple and economical heuristics proposed by psychologists Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer. The recognition heuristic argues that inferences are made about an object based on whether it is recognized or not.

Representativeness Heuristic

The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The representativeness heuristic judges the probability of an event according to the degree to which that event resembles a broader class. When queried, most will choose the first option because the description of John matches the stereotype we may hold for an archaeologist.

Take-The-Best Heuristic

The take-the-best heuristic is a decision-making shortcut that helps an individual choose between several alternatives. The take-the-best (TTB) heuristic decides between two or more alternatives based on a single good attribute, otherwise known as a cue. In the process, less desirable attributes are ignored.

Bundling Bias

The bundling bias is a cognitive bias in e-commerce where a consumer tends not to use all of the products bought as a group, or bundle. Bundling occurs when individual products or services are sold together as a bundle. Common examples are tickets and experiences. The bundling bias dictates that consumers are less likely to use each item in the bundle. This means that the value of the bundle and indeed the value of each item in the bundle is decreased.

Barnum Effect

The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe that generic information – which applies to most people – is specifically tailored for themselves.

First-Principles Thinking

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.

Ladder Of Inference

The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.

Goodhart’s Law

Goodhart’s Law is named after British monetary policy theorist and economist Charles Goodhart. Speaking at a conference in Sydney in 1975, Goodhart said that “any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” Goodhart’s Law states that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Six Thinking Hats Model

The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What in marketing can be associated with social proof.

Moore’s Law

Moore’s law states that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles approximately every two years. This observation was made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 and it become a guiding principle for the semiconductor industry and has had far-reaching implications for technology as a whole.

Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive innovation as a term was first described by Clayton M. Christensen, an American academic and business consultant whom The Economist called “the most influential management thinker of his time.” Disruptive innovation describes the process by which a product or service takes hold at the bottom of a market and eventually displaces established competitors, products, firms, or alliances.

Value Migration

Value migration was first described by author Adrian Slywotzky in his 1996 book Value Migration – How to Think Several Moves Ahead of the Competition. Value migration is the transferal of value-creating forces from outdated business models to something better able to satisfy consumer demands.

Bye-Now Effect

The bye-now effect describes the tendency for consumers to think of the word “buy” when they read the word “bye”. In a study that tracked diners at a name-your-own-price restaurant, each diner was asked to read one of two phrases before ordering their meal. The first phrase, “so long”, resulted in diners paying an average of $32 per meal. But when diners recited the phrase “bye bye” before ordering, the average price per meal rose to $45.


Groupthink occurs when well-intentioned individuals make non-optimal or irrational decisions based on a belief that dissent is impossible or on a motivation to conform. Groupthink occurs when members of a group reach a consensus without critical reasoning or evaluation of the alternatives and their consequences.


A stereotype is a fixed and over-generalized belief about a particular group or class of people. These beliefs are based on the false assumption that certain characteristics are common to every individual residing in that group. Many stereotypes have a long and sometimes controversial history and are a direct consequence of various political, social, or economic events. Stereotyping is the process of making assumptions about a person or group of people based on various attributes, including gender, race, religion, or physical traits.

Murphy’s Law

Murphy’s Law states that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. Murphy’s Law was named after aerospace engineer Edward A. Murphy. During his time working at Edwards Air Force Base in 1949, Murphy cursed a technician who had improperly wired an electrical component and said, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.”

Law of Unintended Consequences

The law of unintended consequences was first mentioned by British philosopher John Locke when writing to parliament about the unintended effects of interest rate rises. However, it was popularized in 1936 by American sociologist Robert K. Merton who looked at unexpected, unanticipated, and unintended consequences and their impact on society.

Fundamental Attribution Error

Fundamental attribution error is a bias people display when judging the behavior of others. The tendency is to over-emphasize personal characteristics and under-emphasize environmental and situational factors.

Outcome Bias

Outcome bias describes a tendency to evaluate a decision based on its outcome and not on the process by which the decision was reached. In other words, the quality of a decision is only determined once the outcome is known. Outcome bias occurs when a decision is based on the outcome of previous events without regard for how those events developed.

Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias is the tendency for people to perceive past events as more predictable than they actually were. The result of a presidential election, for example, seems more obvious when the winner is announced. The same can also be said for the avid sports fan who predicted the correct outcome of a match regardless of whether their team won or lost. Hindsight bias, therefore, is the tendency for an individual to convince themselves that they accurately predicted an event before it happened.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger EffectLindy EffectCrowding Out EffectBandwagon Effect.

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