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.” 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.

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?

Interestingly, in the 1980s, a pair of psychologists slightly reworded the Wason selection puzzle in a form that’s logically equivalent, but this rewording caused a much higher rate of correct responses. Here was the rewording:

On this task imagine you are a police officer on duty. It is your job to make sure that people conform to certain rules. The cards in front of you have information about four people sitting at a table. On one side of the card is a person’s age and on the other side of the card is what the person is drinking. Here is a rule: “If a person is drinking beer, then the person must be over 19 years of age.” Select the card or cards that you definitely must turn over to determine whether or not the people are violating the rule.

Four cards are presented:

• Drinking a beer
• Drinking a Coke
• 16 years of age
• 22 years of age

In this experiment, 29 out of 40 respondents answered correctly. However, when presented with the same task using more abstract language, none of the 40 respondents answered correctly… even though the two puzzles are logically equivalent. Quoting from the above article:

Seventy-five percent of subjects nailed the puzzle when it was presented in this way—revealing what researchers now call a “content effect.” How you dress up the task, in other words, determines its difficulty, despite the fact that it involves the same basic challenge: to see if a rule—if P then Q—has been violated. But why should words matter when it’s the same logical structure that’s always underlying them?

This little study has harrowing implications for those of us that teach mathematical proofs and propositional logic. It’s very easy for people to get some logic questions correct but other logic questions incorrect, even if the puzzles look identical to the mathematician/logician who is posing the questions. Pedagogically, this means that it’s a good idea to use familiar contexts (like rules for underage drinking) to introduce propositional logic. But this comes with a warning, since students who answer questions arising from a familiar context correctly may not really understand propositional logic at all when the question is posed more abstract (like in a mathematical proof).

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