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UC Merced Studying the Mechanics of Reasoning

September 7, 2006

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.”