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Why do people find Wason's selection task so difficult?

The low success rate in Wasons selection task has caused much controversy on the topic of human reasoning. A great depth of research has generated several theories as to why people find the selection task difficult. This essay will consider these different theories and evaluate how effective they are as a sufficient explanation. The Wason selection task is perceived as an abstract, indicative task (Evans, 2003). Participants are presented with four cards as shown in Figure 1. They are told if there is an A on a card, then there is a 3 on its other side. This can be expressed in the general format of if P, then Q. The task involves selecting only the cards which decide if the conditional rule is true or false.

Figure 1: Illustration of Wasons selection task, copied from Evans (2003) Surprisingly, majority of participants answered with the cards A and 3, but the correct ones are in fact A and 7(Evans, 2003). This tendency to merely verify the conditional rule is called confirmation bias However, participants should realise there is a possibility of A appearing on the side of another card other than 3. Equally, besides A, there is a possibility of 3 appearing on another side of a card. Thus, to solve Wasons selection task it is important to find a way to disconfirm the rule (Dawson, Gilovich and Regan, 2002). The question is why do people have this propensity towards confirmation bias? Could it be a result of misinterpretation? Nickerson (1996) found some ambiguity, claiming participants could interpret the Wason selection task in two different ways: 1) if the rule is true for only the four cards presented and 2) if the rule can be applied to a general set of cards. The first interpretation strongly encourages confirmation bias whereas the second motivates people to seek disconfirmation. In fact, Dawson, Gilovich and Regan (2002) did further research on how motivation may influence participants performance. They suggested participants would employ the correct reasoning strategy if prompted to reject the conditional rule. Much of their claim is based on the Can I/Must I model, insinuating people who wish to counter the rule (Must I?) will seek out scenarios which disprove it. Those who wish to accept the rule (Can I?) are subjected to confirmation bias. Although this link between motivation and confirmation bias is plausible, mainly implying scepticism enforces criticism of a claim, there is doubt on how it might apply to Wasons selection task. The motivation elicited from Dawson, Gilovich and Regans (2002) study was emotionally orientated; therefore, one could question how motivation can really influence the success rate when Wasons task is very much abstract and impassive. People cannot truly relate to such a task personally, or in real-life.

This perhaps explains why success rates increases when Wasons selection task is placed in a context. Griggs and Cox (1982, cited in Evans, 2003) recorded a success rate of 75% in their task, using cards as shown in Figure 2.

Beer

Coke

Age 22

Age 16

Figure 2: Illustration of Griggs and Coxs (1982) selection task, copied from Evans (2003) Participants were told if a person is drinking beer, then that person must be over 18 years of age (Evans, 2003, p. 456). Just as in Wasons selection task, participants had to select the cards that would determine if the conditional rule is true or false. Only, Griggs and Coxs task included additional information such as participants having to imagine they were a police officer in a bar, with explicit instructions to check if the rule was being violated. This added responsibility of security checking created a particular scenario (i.e. context) for participants to work with and the content provided a social situation that people can relate to, unlike in Wasons abstract version (Pollard & Evans, 1987). Following this, we may say content and context effects enhance participants performance because it makes the task more realistic and deontic. As previously mentioned, Wasons selection task is described as indicative i.e. suggestive, and depicts the rule type of if P, then Q, whereas deontic refers to if P, must Q (Eysenck & Keane, 2005). The deontic rule type specifically guides people to detect cheaters. The social contract theory emphasises this evolutionary ability to detect cheaters, predicting Wasons selection task becomes easier when the content stimulates people to detect a breach of rule, when proving the rule false. Cosmides (1989) stated the theory involves an exchange of costs and benefits, in which an imbalance between the two results in deception and unfairness. It appears then, that the difficulty in Wasons selection task is its abstract nature. Once the abstract nature of the task is replaced with a realistic social situation, peoples reasoning tends to solve the selection task relatively well. Why is this so? What is it about social scenarios that improve participants performance? This can perhaps be answered by Oaksford and Chater (2001), who suggested people make errors on Wasons selection task by wrongly applying everyday reasoning on abstract, deductive tasks that essentially require logical reasoning. This explanation is derived from the probabilistic approach, which states everyday reasoning is characterised by probability and uncertainty. The probabilistic approach argues the Wason selection task does not truly reflect a deductive task but in fact induces people to perform probabilistic reasoning the aim of which is to select the cards that would best achieve optimal data selection (Oaksford & Chater, 1994 cited in Eysenck & Keane, 2005). This specifies the highest certainty of confirming the conditional statement as true. In the case of Wasons selection task, this would correspond to the P and Q cards i.e. cards A and 3 in figure 1. In other lines of research, the social contract theory has instigated disagreement, for example, Fodor (2000, cited in Beaman, 2002) argued social context or content was irrelevant and insufficient to describe why people fail in the Wason selection task. Instead, he proposed the way the task was worded was more important as it asserted

which rule type to follow i.e. if P, then Q or requires P, then Q. The use of requires encourages people to detect violation or disconfirm the rule. This leads to better performance in reasoning. In contrast, the social contract theory states the content will determine participants in using their cheater detection algorithm (Cosmides, 1989, cited in Beaman, 2002). To investigate which argument carried more weight into explaining why people find Wasons selection task difficult, Beaman (2002) carried out an experiment to test both claims. Fodors theory on rule type affecting performance was tested when used in both non-social and social tasks. The social contract theory was assessed using both rule types. Results showed that when the rule type of requires p, then Q was made explicit in the task, more correct not-Q responses were reported. Therefore, we can conclude Fodors concept was supported to a degree. On the other hand, it was inadequate to completely dismiss the cheater detection system as the number of not-Q responses was overall higher in social content tasks, regardless of what rule type was employed. Perhaps there is a specific component in social situations that stimulates a mechanism, which improves participants performance in reasoning. Further research in this area should be implemented in order to analyse this factor. In a way, the probabilistic approach compliments the social contract theory. Social situations occur in everyday life; therefore participants have the benefit of experience and prior knowledge, which can then be used to calculate the probability of a hypothesis. The probabilistic theory defies the argument of people being irrational or poor at logical reasoning, stating it cannot justify the success of rationality used in real world as well as account for the low success rate (up to 96%) in Wasons selection task. The conflict begs the question of how can peoples reasoning methods be successful if it is highly disposed to error (Oaksford & Chater, 2001). Thus the probabilistic approach resolves this to an extent. However, there are some problems with the theory, one of which includes the use of Bayes theorem to determine probabilities. Oaksford & Chater (2003, cited in Eysenck & Keane, 2005) doubted people even made these calculations because it involves complicated mathematics. Another limitation is the lack of innovative research specifically exploring the mental processes behind probabilistic reasoning. The theory does not provide a clear account on how probability is accomplished in the mind (Oaksford & Chater, 2003, cited in Eysenck & Keane, 2005). Furthermore, the probabilistic approach does not consider those people who do think logically in Wasons selection task, but appears to only explain why people fail in it. However, it partially supports the dual-system theory which can perhaps explain this. The dual-process theory is a classic cognitive model that assumes human reasoning operates on two separate systems. Evans (2003) describes system 1 processes as fast, heuristic and parallel. In contrast, system 2 has a slower processing capacity yet enables one to analyse and think hypothetically in a logical manner. Similar to the social contract theory, the dual system is thought to have an evolutionary basis as well. System 2 has only recently developed over the ages and is found specifically in humans. In contrast, system 1 is also found in animals and has been embedded since the beginning of evolution. How does this model explain why people might make errors on Wasons selection task? The theory explains the abstract nature of Wasons task requires the analytical processes of system 2, on the other hand, realistic and deontic versions provide external cues such as prior knowledge and experience which relate to system 1 process. Stanovich and West (1998, cited in Evans, 2003) illustrated

a strong correlation between the function of system 2 and high levels of intelligence. Those people with higher cognitive ability were able to prevent prior knowledge from system 1 interjecting with the required logical reasoning process in system 2. Thus they believed the level of cognitive ability affected participants performance on answering abstract, deductive tasks. Further support for this finding was established in their work conducted on children and adolescents, where they found significant differences in SAT scores between successful and unsuccessful participants on solving the abstract puzzle. In this respect, the dual system theory takes into account of individual differences in reasoning. Another positive criticism includes support from strong neurological evidence, much of which other explanations lack. Using fMRI techniques, Geol and Dolan (2000) found semantic material in reasoning problems activated the left hemisphere temporal lobe, whereas in abstract tasks, the parietal system was aroused. The dual system can also identify with other concepts that explain why Wasons selection task is difficult. For example, Tversky and Kahneman (1982, cited in Evans, 2003) recognised the probabilistic approach operated similar heuristic processes as described in System 1. This can also pertain to cognitive predispositions such as confirmation bias. To an extent, system 2 can relate to the mental model approach on reasoning, as both formulate hypothetical concepts and are constrained by cognitive limitations such as working memory capacity (Oaskford & Chater, 2001). The neurological evidence found between tasks that contain abstract or semantic material may have a link with the social contract theory. Social scenarios are often considered meaningful; consequently it may stimulate responses from the same area of the brain as found when semantic material was used in the abstract task. Despite links found between the dual system theory and other explanations, we should be aware that other theories on why people make errors on Wasons selection task, (such as misinterpretation and comprehension ability) cannot be so easily divided into two separate categories. In fact, perhaps we should not even make such an assumption because having one dominant model will underestimate the complex mechanisms that operate behind human reasoning. To conclude, the Wason selection task has deeply inspired various theories on describing human reasoning, some of which have introduced different types of reasoning, such as deductive and probabilistic (everyday). Different versions of the task have provided an insight on how people reason in real life i.e. social contract theory and probabilistic approach. However, rather than asking why people find the Wason selection task difficult, we should consider how relevant it is on portraying the nature of human reasoning. There is criticism on whether Wasons selection task is a true test of logical reasoning and this should be further explored in future research.

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