Consistency and Variation in Reasoning About Physical Assembly

Cogn Sci. 2023 Dec;47(12):e13397. doi: 10.1111/cogs.13397.


The ability to reason about how things were made is a pervasive aspect of how humans make sense of physical objects. Such reasoning is useful for a range of everyday tasks, from assembling a piece of furniture to making a sandwich and knitting a sweater. What enables people to reason in this way even about novel objects, and how do people draw upon prior experience with an object to continually refine their understanding of how to create it? To explore these questions, we developed a virtual task environment to investigate how people come up with step-by-step procedures for recreating block towers whose composition was not readily apparent, and analyzed how the procedures they used to build them changed across repeated attempts. Specifically, participants (N = 105) viewed 2D silhouettes of eight unique block towers in a virtual environment simulating rigid-body physics, and aimed to reconstruct each one in less than 60 s. We found that people built each tower more accurately and quickly across repeated attempts, and that this improvement reflected both group-level convergence upon a tiny fraction of all possible viable procedures, as well as error-dependent updating across successive attempts by the same individual. Taken together, our study presents a scalable approach to measuring consistency and variation in how people infer solutions to physical assembly problems.

Keywords: Action; Construction; Intuitive physics; Planning; Spatial reasoning.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Problem Solving*
  • Spatial Processing*