Feeling we’re biased: Autonomic arousal and reasoning conflict

  • Wim De NeysEmail author
  • Elke Moyens
  • Debora Vansteenwegen


Human reasoning is often biased by intuitive beliefs. A key question is whether the bias results from a failure to detect that the intuitions conflict with logical considerations or from a failure to discard these tempting intuitions. The present study addressed this unresolved debate by focusing on conflict-related autonomic nervous system modulation during biased reasoning. Participants’ skin conductance responses (SCRs) were monitored while they solved classic syllogisms in which a cued intuitive response could be inconsistent or consistent with the logical correct response. Results indicated that all reasoners showed increased SCRs when solving the inconsistent conflict problems. Experiment 2 validated that this autonomic arousal boost was absent when people were not engaged in an active reasoning task. The presence of a clear autonomic conflict response during reasoning lends credence to the idea that reasoners have a “gut” feeling that signals that their intuitive response is not logically warranted. Supplemental materials for this article may be downloaded from


Skin Conductance Response Reasoning Task Autonomic Arousal Conflict Detection Syllogistic Reasoning 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Supplementary material (45 kb)
Supplementary material, approximately 340 KB.


  1. Alexander, B. (2009). Amid swine flu outbreak, racism goes viral. NBC Los Angeles. Retrieved June 11, 2009, from www.msnbc.msn .com/id/30467300/.Google Scholar
  2. Ballantyne, C. (2009). Will Egypt’s plans to kill pigs protect it from swine—sorry, H1N1 flu? Retrieved June 16, 2009, from www Scholar
  3. Bechara, A., Damasio, H., Tranel, D., & Damasio, A. R. (1997). Deciding advantageously before knowing the advantageous strategy. Science, 275, 1293–1295.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Botvinick, M. M., Cohen, J. D., & Carter, C. S. (2004). Conflict monitoring and anterior cingulate cortex: An update. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 539–546.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Botvinick, M. M., & Rosen, Z. B. (2009). Anticipation of cognitive demand during decision-making. Psychological Research, 73, 835–842.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Critchley, H. D., Tang, J., Glaser, D., Butterworth, B., & Dolan, R. J. (2005). Anterior cingulate activity during error and autonomic response. NeuroImage, 27, 885–895.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Putnam.Google Scholar
  8. Dawson, M. E., Schell, A. M., & Filion, D. L. (2000). The electrodermal system. In J. T. Cacioppo, L. G. Tassinary, & G. G. Berntson (Eds.), Handbook of psychophysiology (2nd ed., pp. 200–223). New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  9. De Neys, W. (2006). Dual processing in reasoning: Two systems but one reasoner. Psychological Science, 17, 428–433.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. De Neys, W., Cromheeke, S., & Osman, M. (2009). Biased but in doubt: Conflict and decision confidence. Manuscript submitted for publication.Google Scholar
  11. De Neys, W., & Franssens, S. (2009). Belief inhibition during thinking: Not always winning but at least taking part. Cognition, 113, 45–61.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. De Neys, W., & Glumicic, T. (2008). Conflict monitoring in dual process theories of thinking. Cognition, 106, 1248–1299.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. De Neys, W., Schaeken, W., & d’Ydewalle, G. (2005). Working memory and everyday conditional reasoning: Retrieval and inhibition of stored counterexamples. Thinking & Reasoning, 11, 349–381.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. De Neys, W., Vartanian, O., & Goel, V. (2008). Smarter than we think: When our brains detect that we are biased. Psychological Science, 19, 483–489.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Epstein, S. (1994). Integration of the cognitive and the psychodynamic unconscious. American Psychologist, 49, 709–724.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Evans, J. St. B. T. (2003). In two minds: Dual-process accounts of reasoning. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7, 454–459.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Evans, J. St. B. T. (2008). Dual-processing accounts of reasoning, judgment and social cognition. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 255–278.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Evans, J. St. B. T., & Over, D. E. (1996). Rationality and reasoning. Hove, U.K.: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  19. Franssens, S., & De Neys, W. (2009). The effortless nature of conflict detection during thinking. Thinking & Reasoning, 15, 105–128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Goel, V., & Dolan, R. J. (2003). Explaining modulation of reasoning by belief. Cognition, 87, B11-B22.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hajcak, G., McDonald, N., & Simons, R. F. (2003). To err is autonomic: Error-related brain potentials, ANS activity, and post-error compensatory behavior. Psychophysiology, 40, 895–903.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hornik, R., Jacobsohn, L., Orwin, R., Piesse, A., & Kalton, G. (2008). Effects of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign on youths. American Journal of Public Health, 98, 2229–2236.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Houdé, O. (2007). First insights on “neuropedagogy of reasoning.” Thinking & Reasoning, 13, 81–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Kahneman, D. (2002, December). Maps of bounded rationality: A perspective on intuitive judgment and choice. Nobel Prize lecture. Retrieved January 11, 2006, from economics/laureates/2002/kahnemann-lecture.pdf.Google Scholar
  25. Kahneman, D., & Frederick, S. (2005). A model of heuristic judgment. In K. J. Holyoak & R. G. Morrison (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of thinking and reasoning (pp. 267–293). New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Kahneman, D., Slovic, P., & Tversky, A. (Eds.) (1982). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Kobayashi, N., Yoshino, A., Takahashi, Y., & Nomura, S. (2007). Autonomic arousal in cognitive conflict resolution. Autonomic Neuroscience, 132, 70–75.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Markovits, H., & Nantel, G. (1989). The belief-bias effect in the production and evaluation of logical conclusions. Memory & Cognition, 17, 11–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Oakhill, J., Johnson-Laird, P. N., & Garnham, A. (1989). Believability and syllogistic reasoning. Cognition, 31, 117–140.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Paek, H.-J., & Gunther, A. C. (2007). How peer proximity moderates indirect media influence on adolescent smoking. Communication Research, 34, 407–432.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Ridderinkhof, K. R., Ullsperger, M., Crone, E. A., & Nieuwenhuis, S. (2004). The role of the medial frontal cortex in cognitive control. Science, 306, 443–447.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Sá, W. C., West, R. F., & Stanovich, K. E. (1999). The domain specificity and generality of belief bias: Searching for a generalizable critical thinking skill. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 497–510.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Sloman, S. A. (1996). The empirical case for two systems of reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 119, 3–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Stanovich, K. E., & West, R. F. (2000). Individual differences in rea soning: Implications for the rationality debate? Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 23, 645–726.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Thompson, V. A. (2009). Dual process theories: A metacognitive perspective. In J. St. B. T. Evans & K. Frankish (Eds.), In two minds: Dual processes and beyond (pp. 171–195). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Topolinski, S., & Strack, F. (2009). Scanning the “Fringe” of consciousness: What is felt and what is not felt in intuitions about semantic coherence. Consciousness & Cognition, 18, 608–618.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Tsujii, T., & Watanabe, S. (2009). Neural correlates of dual-task effect on belief-bias syllogistic reasoning: A near-infrared spectroscopy study. Brain Research, 1287, 118–125.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. van Veen, V., & Carter, C. S. (2006). Conflict and cognitive control in the brain. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15, 237–240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Wason, P. C., & Evans, J. St. B. T. (1975). Dual processes in reasoning? Cognition, 3, 141–154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Winkielman, P., & Berridge, K. C. (2004). Unconscious emotion. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 120–123.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Wim De Neys
    • 1
    Email author
  • Elke Moyens
    • 2
  • Debora Vansteenwegen
    • 2
  1. 1.CNRS and University of ToulouseToulouseFrance
  2. 2.University of LeuvenLeuvenBelgium

Personalised recommendations