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What Is the Psychology of Reasoning?

By Kenneth W. Michael Wills
Updated May 23, 2024
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Psychologists and other behavioral scientists have a keen interest in understanding whether people have the capacity to reason rationally. The psychology of reasoning studies how people arrive at conclusions, how they communicate those conclusions, and how they use them in decision making and problem solving situations. Many fields of study such as linguistics, psychology, probability and cognitive science converge on what is termed the psychology of reasoning. Research in the field covers a broad spectrum of topics to include intelligence, emotional responses, human development and rationality. Within those topics, researchers attempt to answer a diverse range of questions about the relationship between reasoning and the given topic.

Often the psychology of reasoning is process-oriented and descriptive in nature. It explains the processes behind how people reason and also describes the results. One of the founding fathers in the field of study is Peter Wason, who is famous for his “selection task” research. Wason designed his research to present multiple rational dilemmas similar in nature, where participants in his studies had to make choices and then explain why they made those choices. Subsequent researchers thereafter constructed explanatory paradigms related to reasoning in an attempt to demonstrate how people reason and to conclude how people can use reason to rationalize conclusions.

One such example most people find familiar is moral reasoning. Such selection tasks might involve making a decision on whether it is appropriate to kill one person in order to save a greater number of people. In one task the participant might “indirectly” cause the death of one individual to prevent several deaths, while in another task he or she would “directly” cause the death of one individual to save many. Participants in the study would then provide an explanation as to why they made each decision. Using the results of all the participants in the study, researchers in the psychology of reasoning would attempt to identify patterns of reasoning and the mental processes used to arrive at such conclusions.

Several theories have emerged in relation to the psychology of reasoning and the cognitive processes involved. One of the most popular postulates that humans rely on mental models to construct imagined scenarios to a dilemma. Another theory proposes they use mental logic based on rules to draw conclusions. Still, other researchers conclude that people rely on probability scenarios to compute outcomes. Although not without controversy, one of the main conclusions often drawn is that people can and do think rationally, but often they commit errors in practice.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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