Deduction without awareness

Acta Psychol (Amst). 2012 Jan;139(1):244-53. doi: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2011.09.011. Epub 2011 Oct 22.


We investigated whether two basic forms of deductive inference, Modus Ponens and Disjunctive Syllogism, occur automatically and without awareness. In Experiment 1, we used a priming paradigm with a set of conditional and disjunctive problems. For each trial, two premises were shown. The second premise was presented at a rate designed to be undetectable. After each problem, participants had to evaluate whether a newly-presented target number was odd or even. The target number matched or did not match a conclusion endorsed by the two previous premises. We found that when the target matched the conclusion of a Modus Ponens inference, the evaluation of the target number was reliably faster than baseline even when participants reported that they were not aware of the second premise. This priming effect did not occur for any other valid or invalid inference that we tested, including the Disjunctive Syllogism. In Experiment 2, we used a forced-choice paradigm in which we found that some participants were able to access some information on the second premise when their attention was explicitly directed to it. In Experiment 3, we showed that the priming effect for Modus Ponens was present also in subjects who could not access any information about P(2). In Experiment 4 we explored whether spatial relations (e.g., "a before b") or sentences with quantifiers (e.g., "all a with b") could generate a priming effect similar to the one observed for Modus Ponens. A priming effect could be found for Modus Ponens only, but not for the other relations tested. These findings show that the Modus Ponens inference, in contrast to other deductive inferences, can be carried out automatically and unconsciously. Furthermore, our findings suggest that critical deductive inference schemata can be included in the range of high-level cognitive activities that are carried out unconsciously.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Awareness / physiology*
  • Consciousness / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Psychological
  • Problem Solving / physiology*