Minds and Machines

, Volume 27, Issue 1, pp 11–35 | Cite as

Illusions in Reasoning

  • Sangeet S. Khemlani
  • P. N. Johnson-Laird


Some philosophers argue that the principles of human reasoning are impeccable, and that mistakes are no more than momentary lapses in “information processing”. This article makes a case to the contrary. It shows that human reasoners commit systematic fallacies. The theory of mental models predicts these errors. It postulates that individuals construct mental models of the possibilities to which the premises of an inference refer. But, their models usually represent what is true in a possibility, not what is false. This procedure reduces the load on working memory, and for the most part it yields valid inferences. However, as a computer program implementing the theory revealed, it leads to fallacious conclusions for certain inferences—those for which it is crucial to represent what is false in a possibility. Experiments demonstrate the variety of these fallacies and contrast them with control problems, which reasoners tend to get right. The fallacies can be compelling illusions, and they occur in reasoning based on sentential connectives such as “if” and “or”, quantifiers such as “all the artists” and “some of the artists”, on deontic relations such as “permitted” and “obligated”, and causal relations such as “causes” and “allows”. After we have reviewed the principal results, we consider the potential for alternative accounts to explain these illusory inferences. And we show how the illusions illuminate the nature of human rationality.


Illusory inferences Mental models Deduction Rationality 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Naval Research LaboratoryNavy Center for Applied Research in Artificial IntelligenceWashingtonUSA
  2. 2.Naval Research LaboratoryPrinceton UniversityPrincetonUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyNew York UniversityNew YorkUSA

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