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Good reasoning needn’t make you an unfeeling robot

Some interesting recent research using neuroimaging gives us evidence that different brain systems activate in different reasoning situations. But before we get to that, try the following puzzles: Puzzle…

We can learn to use our minds better by becoming more familiar with how they work. JohnGreenaway

Some interesting recent research using neuroimaging gives us evidence that different brain systems activate in different reasoning situations.

But before we get to that, try the following puzzles:

Puzzle 1: Two playing cards are face up on the table, and two cards are face down. Of the two face-down cards, one has a blue back and the other, red. Of the face-up cards, one is an Ace and the other a King. Which cards must you flip over in order to check that all red-backed cards are Aces?

Puzzle 2: Four people are at the bar. They’re all drinking. You can see that one is drinking mineral water, and another is drinking beer, but you can’t tell their ages. Of the other two, one is clearly under 18 and the other is clearly middle-aged, but you can’t tell what they’re drinking. Who do you need to check to make sure that everyone is complying with the rule that if you drinking alcohol, you’re over 18?

Studies have repeatedly shown people are far more likely to get puzzles such such as number two correct (around 75%) than puzzles such as number one (between 4% and 25%). What explains the difference?

It’s striking that we are good at applying our reasoning in one case but not so good in the other. As someone who studies logic using the tools of philosophy and mathematics, I can see the puzzles have the same logical structure.

They form the basis of the famous Wason Selection Task – a popular test of logical reasoning in experimental psychology.

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Now back to the recent research, published at the end of last month in the journal NeuroImage.

There are two brain networks, called in the literature the “Default Mode Network” and the “Task Positive Network” – and it was shown these activate in different reasoning situations, but rarely together.

One network lit up when subjects were asked to reason about physical systems (including the mechanical properties of inanimate objects); the other lit up when subjects were asked to reason about social situations (including the mental states of other people).

The researchers – from Case Western Reserve University and Washington University in the US – postulate that the two brain systems inhibit each other, which makes it difficult to reason as effectively in tasks encompassing both domains.

Some people have jumped to bad conclusions on the basis of this evidence, claiming that it shows “analytic thinking” and “empathy” are in tension, and that when we reason carefully, we can’t see the human cost of our decisions.

The study doesn’t show anything of the sort. Empathic thinking involves reasoning and analysis as much as any other kind of thinking. After all, there is a reason that psychoanalysis involves analysis.


The NeuroImage data shows we use different neural systems when we process different kinds of information in our thought. It doesn’t show tension between thinking and feeling, or between reasoning and moral judgement.

Notice that in the Wason Selection Task it is the social, personal situation where people seem to reason better, not the abstract impersonal one. We are reasoning in both contexts.

Experiments such as these are important. They can tell us useful things about our capacities, in much the same way other medical research into brains and bodies reveals important things about what we can and can’t do.

But this new paper shouldn’t make us worry that learning to reason is going to make us callous unfeeling robots, any more than getting physically fit might make us thoughtless brutes. Instead, it should encourage us to learn to use our minds better by becoming more familiar with how they work.

Think about it this way …

To think well, we need to do two different but related things.

1) We can all improve our skills at doing reasoning by:

  • learning what good reasoning looks like: both by paying attention to good reasoning when you see it, but also by beginning to spot patterns of reasoning that come up again and again

  • spotting common errors, such as equivocation (when terms you use change in meaning from one part of your reasoning to another) or everyday logical gaffes such as affirming the consequent

  • being able to shift perspectives and look at things from different points of view. If you’re trying to find evidence for some conclusion, stop for a moment and think of what would show that that conclusion was wrong? How would things look then?

  • by growing our store of examples and analogies. Being able to spot how the case you’re looking at might be similar to one you’ve seen before will help you see possibilities you wouldn’t have considered otherwise.

Good reasoning isn’t just a matter of linear steps following programmed rules. It’s also coming up with possibilities to consider and options to explore.

Simply put: the more tools we have at our disposal, and the more comfortable we are with them, the better we’ll reason. If you are used to thinking in different ways, you’ll be able to choose the thinking tool that suits. This is what we do when we teach people to think critically and creatively.

2) We need to better understand what our ways of thinking can do, and what they’re good for. What are the general limits of logical tools? What is the best way of reasoning about morality, or about decision-making and many other things besides?

These are all open questions where the logician, the linguist and the philosopher enter the picture, to help us understand how we can represent and reason about the world. We are the researchers who are curious about people’s conceptual capacities, about what we can do with different forms of representing and reasoning, and where their limits lie.

When we join forces with our colleagues in laboratories who figure out what happens in our brains as we think and feel, we will all get a better picture of how we can engage with each other and the world around us.

How did you go in the two puzzles at the start of this article? If you answered “red card” and “the King” for Puzzle 1, and “the under 18 year old” and “the beer drinker” for Puzzle 2, well done!

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16 Comments sorted by

  1. Michael Shand
    Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Software Tester

    Interesting Article, I have heard this type of thinking called "Vulcan Logic" before, where society portrays people who think logically or reasonably as being out of touch with emotions and the human condition - which you point out is not true

  2. Craig Minns


    An interesting article. As a person who tries to think in just the way your schema defines, I'm constantly amazed at the capacity of otherwise intelligent people to completely ignore facts or consequences that render their viewpoint irrational.

    I suspect it's a consequence of both poor educational practise and the tendency of our media and public thinkers to pose questions in the form of exclusive dichotomies based on an intention to advocate for one or the other. There is little balanced argument available for people to model their own reasoning on, just partisan and deliberately skewed debate based on carefully-chosen premises that are often far from reasonable. Self-interested circularity abounds.

    Thanks for putting this article up. I tried to articulate something similar in a recent discussion here on The Conversation with Patrick Stokes, with far less success.

    1. Greg Restall

      Associate Professor in Philosophy at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Craig Minns

      Yes, Craig, there’s no doubt that there’s self-interest at work all over the place, and a lot of what passes for debate is just the clash of force rather than an attempt to understand better or get to the truth.

      I think, though, that there are more places to find good reasoning than you might expect. You find it where there are people passionately interested in something, genuinely curious about it, and aware that they don’t understand everything. The sciences, when done well, are an obvious place to look for this, but it’s also there in the arts, or even people passionately interested in the prospects of sporting teams. Some of the most intricate, well reasoned discussions you hear on the radio are about sport. It'd be great if we could put those skills to use better in all sorts of areas of life.

  3. Dan Smith

    Network Engineer

    Great article. Greg, to what extent do you think age plays a factor when it comes to learning a feel for logic and formal/informal fallacies? Personally, I find a fair bit of this field relatively intuitive, but with enough exceptions that have fooled me over the years to recognise with a sprinkling of humility that there's a spectrum of feeling for logic out there. I'm always working on improving my knowledge in this area ( and similar sites are a great reference), however the almost…

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    1. Greg Restall

      Associate Professor in Philosophy at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Dan Smith

      Thanks, Dan! I'm glad you liked it.

      I reckon that when it comes to getting a feel for reasoning well, the earlier the better, though this is all anecdotal evidence. (I was a proud dad when my 11 year old son proofread this article for me, and got both versions of the Wason task correct. I haven't taught him any logic explicitly, but I've tried to talk to him as someone whose opinions matter, and we try to respectfully look for the truth together… Some of it seems to have rubbed off on him.) But…

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    2. Linus Bowden

      management consultant

      In reply to Greg Restall

      Great post Greg. I would have thought that rather than an issue of different reasoning networks being in conflict, the second puzzle is much more loaded to tap into our episodic memories - our many, many experiences with bars, age differences, underage drinking, and so on - than the card example. Though I wonder if the results differ by sub-populations, such as full-time professional poker players, or bartenders?

    3. Linus Bowden

      management consultant

      In reply to Dan Smith

      Dan, a lot more time spent mastering Euclidean geometry wouldn't hurt either.

  4. Anke MacLean


    Ummm. I eagerly await to be shot down in flames here... but can someone explain to me why the answer for the first puzzle:

    Which cards must you flip over in order to check that all red-backed cards are Aces?

    “red card” and “the King” for Puzzle 1

    not "red card" and "ace"?

    1. Craig Minns


      In reply to Anke MacLean

      Because they are the two cards that can DISprove the proposition that red-backed cards are always aces.

      Because a red card with a king on it would falsify the hypothesis.

    2. Greg Restall

      Associate Professor in Philosophy at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Anke MacLean

      Hi Anke — no need to worry about being shot down (flames or not). It's pretty easy to slip up with this puzzle.

      There are two parts to the answer to your question. First, why you need to heck the King, and second, why you don't need to check the Ace.

      (1) You need to check the King, because if it's red on the other side, it will be a counterexample to the rule that red-backed cards are Aces. (This is just like checking the young person in the other puzzle, when you want to know that all alcohol…

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    3. Anke MacLean


      In reply to Greg Restall

      And I've just become the not-roasted test-bunny proving the article's hypothesis. Puzzle 2 is, in fact, easier. Sigh.

      However, thanks heaps - both Craig and Greg!

      Of course turning the ace and finding a red back isn't a definitive proof. Turning the blue and finding an ace would be. Between your two explanations, I was able to 'imagine' the way the brain was supposed to go, as opposed to the way the lazy language assumptions of my brain wanted to go, which was along the lines of 'all aces have red backs'.

      Which, I believe, is the point of the article - lived examples more readily elicit 'reason' simultaneously with emotion, whereas abstract examples elicit confusion in... well... someone like me. You guys rock. Ta. And wow - the speed of your replies! Kudos, gentlemen, kudos!

    4. Craig Minns


      In reply to Anke MacLean

      Anke, turning the blue and finding an ace would not prove anything. The question is about the cards with red backs only.

      But you're entirely welcome.

    5. Anke MacLean


      In reply to Craig Minns

      HA! Okay. I am as stupid as I type. Possibly not as stupid as I look. And clever enough to continue saying 'thank you'. Give me week and then try me on puzzles 3 and 4. I'll get there yet!

  5. Brad Adams

    logged in via Twitter

    I majored in philosophy and psychology as an undergraduate, and did my 4th year psych project on how people evaluate informal arguments about controversial issues. It's a topic that interests me greatly. The amount of literature on the selection task is huge, but rarely does it mention emotion. Just out of curiosity, have you seen Finocchiaro's translation of the selection task into symbolic form?

    I particularly like your point that reasoning is "also coming up with possibilities to consider and…

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    1. Anke MacLean


      In reply to Brad Adams

      I'm about to shove my oar in again, but this time on something I believe I have a little more knowledge in... In terms of thinking about emotion, most of the research seems to indicate that it all cultures experience similar emotional responses when our investments (loyalty, financial, physical, time-based) are threatened. E.g. contempt as a response to threats to communal codes; anger when we perceive an individual or their rights has been violated; disgust arises when something we considered…

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