Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Everyday Conditional Reasoning: A Working Memory-Dependent Tradeoff between Counterexample and Likelihood Use

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Everyday Conditional Reasoning: A Working Memory-Dependent Tradeoff between Counterexample and Likelihood Use

Article excerpt

Considerable evidence has revealed that working memory capacity is an important determinant of conditional reasoning performance. There are two accounts describing the conditional inference process, the probabilistic and the mental models accounts. According to the mental models account, reasoners retrieve and integrate counterexample information to attain a conclusion. According to the probabilistic account, reasoners base their judgments on probabilistic information. It can be assumed that reasoning according to the mental models process would require more working memory resources than would solving the inference on the basis of probabilistic information. By means of a verbal report study, we showed that participants with low working memory capacity more often use probabilistic information, whereas participants with higher working memory capacity are more likely to use counterexample information. Working memory capacity thus not only relates to reasoning performance, it also determines which process reasoners will engage in.

Working memory is conceived of as a cognitive system with a constrained capacity that limits performance in various tasks. In its most general conceptualization, it is seen as controlled attention (see, e.g., Kane, Bleckley, Conway, & Engle, 2001), whereas more functional approaches refer to aspects of moment-to-moment monitoring of processing activities and the maintenance, manipulation, and recombination of information as its main executive tasks (see, e.g., Miyake & Shah, 1999; Oberauer, Suss, Wilhelm, & Wittmann, 2003). Research has shown that working memory capacity is a crucial determinant of performance in a variety of cognitively complex tasks (see, e.g., Kyllonen & Christal, 1990). Studies on abstract syllogistic reasoning problems have yielded strong evidence for a link between working memory capacity and reasoning performance: The higher the working memory capacity of participants, the more these participants give normative answers (Copeland & Radvansky, 2004; Gilhooly, Logie, & Wynn, 1999). The present study focuses on the role of working memory capacity in conditional reasoning.

The involvement of working memory capacity in conditional reasoning has already been demonstrated for abstract or content-lean inference making: Toms, Morris, and Ward (1993) found disruptive effects of secondary tasks, and Barrouillet and Lecas (1999) concluded on the basis of a developmental study that there is a significant correlation between working memory span (measured by counting span) and successful reasoning performance. However, reasoning on abstract conditionals differs from reasoning with everyday conditionals (see, e.g., Bindra, Clarke, & Shultz, 1980; Venet & Markovits, 2001). Markovits, Doyon, and Simoneau (2002) looked at the relation between individual differences in (visual and verbal) working memory and reasoning performance on both concrete and abstract conditionals. For both types of conditionals, they found some significant correlations between visual and verbal working memory capacity and reasoning performance, but the correlational patterns were different for abstract versus concrete reasoning problems. The authors did not explain this difference but concluded that it is necessary to consider content as an important process-related variable.

One explanation for the differences in performance on abstract and concrete reasoning tasks is that in the case of everyday conditionals, participants spontaneously take their background knowledge into account (for a review, see Politzer & Bourmaud, 2002). Although this contextualization process is characteristic of everyday and commonsense reasoning, the information integration process is omitted when research focuses on abstract conditionals. Consequently, the working memory resources needed to perform abstract reasoning tasks may be different from the resources needed to perform concrete reasoning tasks. …

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