When logic fails: implicit transitive inference in humans

Mem Cognit. 2005 Jun;33(4):742-50. doi: 10.3758/bf03195340.


Transitive inference (TI) in animals (e.g., choosing A over C on the basis of knowing that A is better than B and B is better than C) has been interpreted by some as reflecting a declarative logical inference process. We invert this anthropomorphic interpretation by providing evidence that humans can exhibit TI-like behavior on the basis of simpler associative mechanisms that underlie many theories of animal learning. In this study, human participants were trained on a five-pair TI problem (A+B-, B+C-, C+D-, D+E-, E+F-) and, unlike in previous human TI studies, were prevented from becoming explicitly aware of the logical hierarchy, so they could not employ logical reasoning. They were then tested with three problems: B versus D, B versus E, and C versus E. Participants only reliably chose B over E, whereas the other test conditions yielded chance performance. This result is inconsistent with the use of logical reasoning and is instead consistent with an account developed to explain earlier TI studies with rats that found the same pattern of results. In this account, choice performance is based on differential associative strengths across the stimulus items that develop over training, despite equal overt reinforcement.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Awareness
  • Cognition*
  • Humans
  • Logic*