The Wason Selection Task is the somewhat famous experimental problem that requires attempting to falsify a hypothesis in order to get the correct answer. From the wikipedia article:

You are shown a set of four cards placed on a table, each of which has a number on one side and a colored patch on the other side. The visible faces of the cards show 3, 8, red and brown. Which card(s) should you turn over in order to test the truth of the proposition that if a card shows an even number on one face, then its opposite face is red?

Aside from an illustration of the rampancy of confirmation bias (only 10-20% of people get it right), the task is interesting for another reason: when framed in terms of social interactions, people's performance dramatically improves:

For example, if the rule used is "If you are drinking alcohol then you must be over 18", and the cards have an age on one side and beverage on the other, e.g., "17", "beer", "22", "coke", most people have no difficulty in selecting the correct cards ("17" and "beer").

However, apparently psychopaths perform nearly as badly on the "social contract" versions of this experiment as they do on the normal one. From the Economist:

For problems cast as social contracts or as questions of risk avoidance, by contrast, non-psychopaths got it right about 70% of the time. Psychopaths scored much less—around 40%—and those in the middle of the psychopathy scale scored midway between the two.

The original (gated) research appears to be here.

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when framed in terms of social interactions, people's performance dramatically improves

From the Wikipedia article, after invoking evolutionary psychology and social interaction to explain the improvement:

Alternatively, it could just mean that there are some linguistic contexts in which people tend to interpret "if" as a material conditional, and other linguistic contexts in which its most common vernacular meaning is different.

It shouldn't be hard to present the test as a real world example that doesn't involve social interaction (e.g. "If lights are on, there is electricity in the house").

/me goes off to test this on a couple of linguistics students

Result: One correct and one incorrect answer.

Two results isn't enough to get a hold of probabilities like 40% and 70%; can we get ten linguistics students surveyed? I know three and could test them. Can you describe the test in more detail?

Yeah, I expected someone to point out a paper where this has been done (online Wikipedia references don't have it and I couldn't find the papers Ermer cited).

The paper presents good evidence in favor of its hypothesis, but I am more interested if ordinary people really do logic better in social context as opposed to other real-world tasks.

As for the test:

  • Made four cards out of paper, drew a lightning bolt, a light bulb, a crossed-out lightning bolt and a crossed-out light bulb. Back of the cards was empty.
  • Presented the cards as houses - one side specifies if lights are on, other specifies if there is electricity.
  • Told them that "if lights are on, there must be electricity in the house" and individually asked which house(s) they must check (flip) to see if any of them are impossible.

This isn't a good test. I'd much rather go for something more primal, such as "If you don't eat, you will die".


That's an interesting result. I wonder if it's also true for chunks of people on the autism spectrum?

I wonder if this is the same anthropomorphization effect that makes me want to think about how "the algorithm needs to know this" or "the computer watches for that event" when I'm programming.

Yes, I experience something similar when writing or understanding proofs. I think about how the proof is "using" something. This seems common among mathematicians. Mathematicians also seem to be fond about talking about where objects "live" which is similar notation.

I think about how the proof is "using" something. This seems common among mathematicians.

That's where abstract mathematical concepts come from: you use only certain properties of an object in a proof, and thus the proof applies to all objects that have those properties, no matter what other properties they have, and the properties that were used define an abstraction of their own. This way, apples become numbers.

Nice. Same applies for extracting interfaces in programming (e.g. IComperable).


Presumably IComperable is the interface implemented by objects representing staged events such as concerts, galas, and quizzes.

The original paper is available ungated here. (Found on the author's website.)

There's an urban legend that this riddle is easier for psychopaths:

A woman meets the man of her dreams at her own mother's funeral, but doesn't get his number. A few days later, the woman kills her own sister. Why?

If you find the riddle difficult, it's because your social mode of analysis is jumping in inappropriately. I could easily imagine that someone who was deficient in that kind of analysis might work it out faster.

Damn. I fail. And it is damn obvious too!

Also worth noting is that they also did badly (i.e. no better than the abstract version) on risk-related versions, while normal people did better. So this helps to solidify the idea of psychopathy as something specific.