Rules for Reasoning

Rules for Reasoning

Rules for Reasoning

Rules for Reasoning

Synopsis

This book examines two questions: Do people make use of abstract rules such as logical and statistical rules when making inferences in everyday life? Can such abstract rules be changed by training? Contrary to the spirit of reductionist theories from behaviorism to connectionism, there is ample evidence that people do make use of abstract rules of inference -- including rules of logic, statistics, causal deduction, and cost-benefit analysis. Such rules, moreover, are easily alterable by instruction as it occurs in classrooms and in brief laboratory training sessions. The fact that purely formal training can alter them and that those taught in one content domain can "escape" to a quite different domain for which they are also highly applicable shows that the rules are highly abstract. The major implication for cognitive science is that people are capable of operating with abstract rules even for concrete, mundane tasks; therefore, any realistic model of human inferential capacity must reflect this fact. The major implication for education is that people can be far more broadly influenced by training than is generally supposed. At high levels of formality and abstraction, relatively brief training can alter the nature of problem-solving for an infinite number of content domains.

Excerpt

Twentieth-century psychology has had a strong prejudice against abstraction, that is, against the view that the world is understood by means of rules that transcend the perception of a particular physical stimulus or the comprehension of a domain of related events. In the United States, the prejudice has been bound up with behaviorism and its successor positions. Behaviorists were determined to find the equivalent of the reflex arc in physiology--stimulus-response linkages that could be described with precision by a physical description of the stimulus, the response, and the conditions of their co-occurrence during learning. So complete was their dedication to such physical description that they felt confident that the study of animals could substitute for the study of humans in building a complete theory of behavior.

Early in the 19th-century, the behaviorist E. L. Thorndike performed a series of experiments that satisfied two generations of American psychologists that abstractions were not importantly involved in learning how to perform skilled tasks. He asked his subjects to perform a particular task for varying amounts of time (e.g., cancelling Os from a sentence, and then switched them to another task; cancelling adverbs from a sentence). He found that "transfer of training" effects were slight and unstable. Sometimes he found that performance of the first task enhanced the second, sometimes that it made it more difficult, and, often, that it had no effect at all. One would, of course, assume that performance on the second task would be improved if subjects learned something general from performance of the first task. Since they so often failed to show improved training, Thorndike inferred that people don't, in fact, learn much that is general . . .

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