Psychology of reasoning

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The psychology of reasoning is the study of how people reason, often broadly defined as the process of drawing conclusions to inform how people solve problems and make decisions.[1] It is at the intersection of psychology, philosophy, linguistics, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, logic, and probability theory.

Psychological experiments on how humans and other animals reason have been carried out for over 100 years. An enduring question is whether or not people have the capacity to be rational. What does it mean to be rational? Current research in this area addresses various questions about reasoning, rationality, judgments, intelligence, relationships between emotion and reasoning, and development.

Everyday reasoning

How do people reason about sentences in natural language? Most experimentation on deduction has been carried out on hypothetical thought, in particular, examining how people reason about conditionals, e.g., If A then B.[2] Participants in experiments make the modus ponens inference, given the indicative conditional If A then B, and given the premise A, they conclude B. However, given the indicative conditional and the minor premise for the modus tollens inference, not-B, about half of the participants in experiments conclude not-A and the remainder concludes that nothing follows.[2]

The ease with which people make conditional inferences is affected by content, as demonstrated in the well-known selection task developed by Peter Wason. Participants are better able to test a conditional that contains sensible content, e.g., if the envelope is sealed then it must have a 50 cent stamp on it compared to one that contains symbolic content, e.g., if the letter is a vowel then the number is even.[2] Background knowledge can also lead to the suppression of even the simple modus ponens inference [3] Participants given the conditional if Lisa has an essay to write then she studies late in the library and the premise Lisa has an essay to write make the modus ponens inference 'she studies late in the library', but the inference is suppressed when they are also given a second conditional if the library stays open then she studies late in the library. Interpretations of the suppression effect are controversial [4][5]

Other investigations of propositional inference examine how people think about disjunctive alternatives, e.g., A or else B, and how they reason about negation, e.g., It is not the case that A and B. Many experiments have been carried out to examine how people make relational inferences, including comparisons, e.g., A is better than B. Such investigations also concern spatial inferences, e.g. A is in front of B and temporal inferences, e.g. A occurs before B.[6] Other common tasks include categorical syllogisms, used to examine how people reason about quantifiers such as All or Some, e.g., Some of the A are not B.[7]

Theories of reasoning

There are several alternative theories of the cognitive processes that human reasoning is based on.[8] One view is that people rely on a mental logic consisting of formal (abstract or syntactic) inference rules similar to those developed by logicians in the propositional calculus.[9] Another view is that people rely on domain-specific or content-sensitive rules of inference.[10] A third view is that people rely on mental models, that is, mental representations that correspond to imagined possibilities.[11] The mental model theory is the subject of the mental models website A fourth view is that people compute probabilities.[12]

One controversial theoretical issue is the identification of an appropriate competence model, or a standard against which to compare human reasoning. Initially classical logic was chosen as a competence model.[13] Subsequently some researchers opted for non-monotonic logic[14][15] and Bayesian probability.[16] Research on mental models and reasoning has led to the suggestion that people are rational in principle but err in practice.[6][7] Connectionist approaches towards reasoning have also been proposed.[17]

Development of reasoning

How does reasoning develop? Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development[18] describes a sequence of stages in the development of reasoning from infancy to adulthood. According to the neo-Piagetian theories of cognitive development, changes in reasoning with development come from increasing working memory capacity, increasing speed of processing, and enhanced executive functions and control. Increasing self-awareness is also an important factor.[19]

Different sorts of reasoning

Inductive reasoning makes broad generalizations from specific cases or observations. In this process of reasoning, general assertions are made based on past specific pieces of evidence. This kind of reasoning allows the conclusion to be false even if the original statement is true.[20] For example, if one observes a college athlete, one makes predictions and assumptions about other college athletes based on that one observation. Scientists use inductive reasoning to create theories and hypotheses.[21]

In opposition, deductive reasoning is a basic form of valid reasoning.[21] In this reasoning process a person starts with a known claim or a general belief and from there asks what follows from these foundations or how will these premises influence other beliefs.[20] In other words, deduction starts with a hypothesis and examines the possibilities to reach a conclusion.[21] Deduction helps people understand why their predictions are wrong and indicates that their prior knowledge or beliefs are off track. An example of deduction can be seen in the scientific method when testing hypotheses and theories. Although the conclusion usually corresponds and therefore proves the hypothesis, there are some cases where the conclusion is logical, but the generalization is not. For example, the argument, “All young girls wear skirts. Julie is a young girl. Therefore, Julie wears skirts,” is valid logically, but is not sound because the first premise isn't true.

The syllogism is a form of deductive reasoning in which two statements reach a logical conclusion. With this reasoning, one statement could be “Every A is B” and another could be “This C is A”. Those two statements could then lead to the conclusion that “This C is B”. These types of syllogisms are used to test deductive reasoning to ensure there is a valid hypothesis.[21] A Syllogistic Reasoning Task was created from a study performed by Morsanyi, Kinga, Handley, and Simon that examined the intuitive contributions to reasoning. They used this test to assess why “syllogistic reasoning performance is based on an interplay between a conscious and effortful evaluation of logicality and an intuitive appreciation of the believability of the conclusions”.[22]

Another form of reasoning is called abductive reasoning. This type is based on creating and testing hypotheses using the best information available. Abductive reasoning produces the kind of daily decision-making that works best with the information present, which often is incomplete. This could involve making educated guesses from observed unexplainable phenomena. This type of reasoning can be seen in the world when doctors make decisions about diagnoses from a set of results or when jurors use the relevant evidence to make decisions about a case.[21]

Judgment and reasoning

Judgment and reasoning involve thinking through the options, making a judgment or conclusion and finally making a decision. Making judgments involves heuristics, or efficient strategies that usually lead you to the right answers.[20] The most common heuristics used are attribute substitution, the availability heuristic, the representativeness heuristic and the anchoring heuristic – these all aid in quick reasoning and work in most situations. Heuristics allow for errors, a price paid to gain efficiency.[20]

Other errors in judgment, therefore affecting reasoning, include errors in judgment about covariation – a relationship between two variables such that the presence and magnitude of one can predict the presence and magnitude of the other.[20] One cause of covariation is confirmation bias, or the tendency to be more responsive to evidence that confirms your beliefs. But assessing covariation can be pulled off track by neglecting base-rate information – how frequently something occurs in general.[20] However people often ignore base rates and tend to use other information presented.

There are more sophisticated judgment strategies that result in fewer errors. People often reason based on availability but sometimes they look for other, more accurate, information to make judgments.[23] This suggests there are two ways of thinking, known as the Dual-Process Model.[24] The first, System I, is fast, automatic and uses heuristics – more of intuition. The second, System II, is slower, effortful and more likely to be correct – more reasoning.[20]

Pragmatics and reasoning

Decision making is often influenced by the emotion of regret and the element of risk. People are strongly motivated by regret and we can see this when they select options they tend to select the option that they will regret the least trying to minimize the amount of regret we will have.[27] Many decisions also include a large element of risk, and in these cases people tend to ask themselves what the level of risk is. They ask themselves how much dread they would experience when thinking about a nuclear accident, and then use that dread as an indicator of risk.[28] We ask “how does this make me feel?” rather than “how risky is this?”

Antonio Damasio suggests that somatic markers, certain memories that can cause a strong bodily reaction, act as a way to guide decision making as well. For example, when you are remembering a scary movie and once again become tense and your palms might begin to sweat. Damasio argues that when making a decision we rely on our “gut feelings” to assess various options, and this makes decide to go with a decision that is more positive and stay away from those that are negative.[29] He also argues that the orbitofrontal cortex - located at the base of the frontal lobe, just above the eyes - is crucial in your use of somatic markers, because it is the part in the brain that allows you to interpret emotion.

Another note to make is that when emotion shapes decisions, the influence is usually based on predictions of the future. When people ask themselves how they would react, they are making inferences about the future. Researchers suggest affective forecasting, the ability to predict your own emotions, is poor because people tend to overestimate how much they will regret their errors.[30]

Neuroscience of reasoning

See also


  1. Leighton, J. P. (2004). Defining and describing reason, in The Nature of Reasoning (eds Leighton, J. P. and Sternberg, R. J.) Cambridge University Press
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Evans, J.St.B.T., Newstead, S. and Byrne, R.M.J. (1993). Human Reasoning: The Psychology of Deduction. Hove, UK, Psychology Press
  3. Byrne, R.M.J. (1989). Suppressing valid inferences with conditionals. Cognition, 31,61-83
  4. Bonnefon, J-F. & Hilton, D. (2002). The suppression of modus ponens as a case of pragmatic preconditional reasoning. Thinking and Reasoning, 8, 21-40.
  5. Byrne, R.M.J., Espino, O. & Santamaria, C. (1999). Counterexamples and the suppression of inferences." Journal of Memory & Language", 40, 347-373.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Johnson-Laird, P.N. and Byrne, R.M.J. (1991). Deduction. Hillsdale: Erlbaum
  7. 7.0 7.1 Johnson-Laird, P.N. (2006). "How we reason". Oxford: Oxford University Press
  8. Byrne, R.M.J. and Johnson-Laird, P.N. (2009).'If' and the problems of conditional reasoning. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13, 282-287
  9. O’Brien, D. (2009). Human reasoning requires a mental logic. Behav. Brain Sci. 32, 96–97
  10. Cosmides, L. et al. (2005) Detecting cheaters. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 9,505–506
  11. Johnson-Laird, P.N. and Byrne, R.M.J. (2002) Conditionals: a theory of meaning, inference, and pragmatics. Psychol. Rev. 109, 646–678
  12. Oaksford, M. and Chater, N. (2007) Bayesian Rationality. Oxford University Press
  13. See, e.g., Wason, P. C. (1966). "Reasoning", in Foss, B. M.: New horizons in psychology. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  14. Da Silva Neves, R., Bonnefon, J. F., & Raufaste, É. (2002). An empirical test for patterns of nonmonotonic inference. Annals of Mathematics and Artificial Intelligence, 34, 107-130
  15. Stenning, K. & van Lambalgen, M. (2005). Semantic Interpretation as Computation in Nonmonotonic Logic: The Real Meaning of the Suppression Task. Cognitive Science, 29, 919-960
  16. See, e.g., Oaksford, M. & Chater, N. (2001) The probabilistic approach to human reasoning. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5, 349-357
  17. Sun, R. (1994). Integrating Rules and Connectionism for Robust Commonsense Reasoning. John Wiley and Sons, New York.
  18. Demetriou, A. (1998). Cognitive development. In A. Demetriou, W. Doise, K. F. M. van Lieshout (Eds.), Life-span developmental psychology (pp. 179-269). London: Wiley.
  19. Demetriou, A., Mouyi, A., & Spanoudis, G. (2010). The development of mental processing. Nesselroade, J. R. (2010). Methods in the study of life-span human development: Issues and answers. In W. F. Overton (Ed.), Biology, cognition and methods across the life-span. Volume 1 of the Handbook of life-span development (pp. 36-55), Editor-in-chief: R. M. Lerner. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 20.4 20.5 20.6 Reisberg, Daniel. (2013). Cognition: Exploring the Science of the Mind. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 LiveScience Staff. (2012). Deductive Reasoning vs. Inductive Reasoning. Retrieved from
  22. Morsanyi, Kinga; Handley, Simon J. (2011). Syllogistic Reasoning Task. doi:10.1037/t09520-000
  23. Oppenheimer, D.M. (2004). Spontaneous discounting of availability in frequency judgment tasks. Psychological Science, 15, 100-105.
  24. Evans, J. S. B. T. (2012a). Dual-process theories of deductive reasoning: Facts and fallacies. In Holyoak, K. J., & Morrison, R. G. (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning (pp. 115-133). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  25. See, e.g., Noveck, I. A. (2004) Pragmatic Inferences Related to Logical Terms. In Noveck, I. A. & Sperber, D. (ed.), Experimental Pragmatics, Palgrave Macmillan
  26. Blanchette, I. & Richards, A. (2004). Reasoning about emotional and neutral materials. Is logic affected by emotion? Psychological Science, 15, 745-75
  27. Connolly, T., & Zeelenberg, M. (2002). Regret in decision making. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 212-216.
  28. Slovic, P., et al., (2002). The affect heuristic. In t. Gilvoch, D. Griffen, & New York, NY: Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  29. Damasio, A.R. (1994) Descartes’ error: Emotion reason, and the human brain. New York, NY: Putnam.
  30. Gilbert, Morewedge, Risen, & Wilson, T. D. (2004). Looking forward to looking backward. Psychology Science, 15, 346-350.
  31. See, e.g., Goel, V. (2005). Cognitive Neuroscience of Deductive Reasoning. In Holyoak, K. J. & Morrison, R. G. (ed.). The Cambridge Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning, Cambridge University Press

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