I recently read about a simple but clever logic puzzle, known as the “Wason selection task,” which is often claimed to be “the single most investigated experimental paradigm in the psychology of reasoning.”
Here’s the puzzle: You are shown four different cards, showing a 5, an 8, a blue card, and a green card. You are told that each card has a number on one side and a color on the other side. You are asked to test the truth of the following statement:
If a card has an even number on one side, then its opposite side is blue.
Question: Which card (or cards) must you turn over to test the truth of this statement?
The answer is: You must turn over the 8 card and the green card. The following video explains why:
- Clearly, you must turn over the 8 card. If the opposite side is not blue, then the proposition is false.
- Clearly, the 5 card is not helpful. The statement only tells us something if the card shows an even number.
- More subtly, the blue card is not helpful either. The statement claim is “If even, then blue,” not “If blue, then even.” This is the converse of the statement, and converses are not necessarily equivalent to the original statement.
- Finally, the contrapositive of “If even, then blue” is “If not blue, then not even.” Therefore, any card that is not blue (like the green one) should be turned over.
If you got this wrong, you’re in good company. More than 90% of Wason’s subjects got the answer wrong when Wason first studied this problem back in the 1960s, and this result has been repeated time over time by psychologists ever since.
Speaking for myself, I must admit that I blew it too when I first came across this problem. In the haze of the early morning when I first read this article, I erroneously thought that the 8 card and the blue card had to be turned.