“The Problem with the Way Scientists Study Reason
Psychologists studying reasoning extensively rely on logic and philosophy, and neglect psychology’s more natural ally: biology.
Sacha Altay is a Ph.D. student in cognitive science at École Normale Supérieure in Paris. He works on argumentation, misinformation, and how we evaluate communicated information. Follow him on Twitter @Sacha_Altay.
Ethologists evaluate their experimental paradigm, or set-up, in light of its ecological validity, or how well it matches natural surroundings. An animal’s true habitat, and its evolutionary history, have always centered the discussion. In contrast, most experimental paradigms in human reasoning, such as the Cognitive Reflexion Test (CRT) or syllogisms, are based on logic or mathematics.
Psychologists studying reasoning extensively rely on logic and philosophy, and neglect psychology’s more natural ally: biology. The neglect stems in part from the ease with which humans can seem to understand one another. Our psychology is equipped with specialized cognitive systems, like theory of mind, that help us negotiate social life. We spontaneously attribute intentions, reasons, and beliefs to others. These heuristics help us to predict behavior, but they also parasitize our scientific understanding of the mind, blinding us to the necessity of using biology when studying ourselves.
Humans are, in other words, too familiar with one another. Fundamental laws of biology, like evolution by natural selection, are falsely believed to have weak constraints on human psychology—particularly for high-level cognitive functions, like reasoning. But the human brain, just like the turtle brain, has been shaped by millions of years of evolution. Reason is unlikely to have escaped its influence.
Our big brains likely evolved to solve tasks related to social interactions, not abstract logical problems. The Cosmides-Tooby selection task was ecologically valid; the first one wasn’t. Using the wrong experimental design, whether it’s the task itself or the stimuli, exposes researchers to many problems—the main one being that the results become hard to interpret. You don’t know if what you found reveals an interesting feature of the human mind—such as that human deductive reasoning is biased in the classical Wason selection task—or if it’s just a methodological artifact because the stimuli were not ecological.
But Hugo Mercier, who I work with at École Normale Supérieure, and Dan Sperber recently ventured there in their 2017 book, The Enigma of Reason. According to them, reasoning is not a capacity to correct false intuitions or solve problems. Nature is full of problems that organisms have to solve (like finding a mate, or food for dinner) and they constantly update their priors, or beliefs, about their environment in a broadly rational fashion.”