UC Merced Studying the Mechanics of Reasoning

MERCED - Professor Evan Heit and his students want to know the reasons behind reasoning.

Are there two kinds of reasoning? Is it logic vs. intuition? And can people be taught to use logical deliberation, even when it flies in the face of their own long-held assumptions?

Heit and University of Massachusetts Professor Caren Rotello will get $300,000 from the National Science Foundation over the next three years to find out.

Besides gathering and analyzing data from 30 experiments over the three years, Heit said this project is a great way to involve undergraduate students in research. Four students a year will participate.

"It really fits what we're doing here, getting so many students to take part," said Heit, a founding faculty member who teaches both psychology and cognitive science classes. "There are some things the students just get really excited about," he explained, and getting involved in research is one of them.

In addition to keeping UC Merced students excited while they are here, research experience will also help them get into graduate programs in the future.

Participants in Heit's project will have the chance to interact with graduate students, as a University of Massachusetts graduate student will come to UC Merced each year for a month to help out with the project.

In the end, Heit, his colleagues and his students will have more than just a report. They will have a computer model of how minds work while working out answers to logic questions. Some will have lots of time to deduce answers, while others will be asked to give their first "intuitive" responses.

Not all of the experiments have been designed yet, but many will involve SAT-type questions or word problems like the ones people might find in puzzle books. Heit said fellow UC Merced Professor Jeffrey Yoshimi, who studies the philosophy of the mind and of cognitive science, will act as a consultant on the project.

Students will also be asked to answer questions at the beginning and end of the semesters, and their critical thinking progress can be measured as they take various college courses. Eventually, this research might have applications for tracking the development of thinking skills in high school students and even younger students.

"One of the most interesting things about psychology research is that while you are doing the experiments," Heit said, "you are learning about yourself, too."

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