Axelrod compares historical analogies used to make sense of 9/11, Mumbai, Tahrir Square

August 16, 2016

An article by Bob Axelrod and Larissa Forster (ARTIS Research), "How Historical Analogies in Newspapers of Five Countries Make Sense of Major Events: 9/11, Mumbai and Tahrir Square," has been published by the journal Research in Economics.


We analyze how historical analogies are used in the media to make sense of novel events. While earlier work focused on single case studies, this is the first quantitative analysis comparing historical analogies invoked in three events in newspapers from five countries. With very high intercoder reliability we found 881 invocations of historical analogies. We found an interesting contrast between the roles of historical analogies in foreign policy decision making vs. newspaper articles. When the task is advocacy for policy choice, a compelling historical analogy will be one in which the causal mechanisms are as similar as possible to the current situation so that similar actions are likely to lead to similar results. Instead, newspapers spend more time at the early stages of sense-making and help the audience understand just a few features of the current situation. Newspapers thus offer a much broader range of historical analogies without much regard to maximizing similarity.