Mental models in conditional reasoning and working memory

Thinking and Reasoning 5 (4):289 – 302 (1999)
Johnson-Laird's mental models theory claims that reasoning is a semantic process of construction and manipulation of models in working memory of limited capacity. Accordingly, both a deduction and a given interpretation of a premise would be all the harder the higher the number of models they require. The purpose of the present experiment was twofold. First, it aimed to demonstrate that the interpretation of if...then conditional sentences in children (third, sixth, and ninth graders) evolves as a function of the number of models the children can produce. We proposed a theory of conditional reasoning development that hypothesises a developmental trend of three successive levels of interpretations underlain by one, two, and then three models, i.e. conjunctive, biconditional, and conditional respectively. Second, we aimed to show that these different levels correlate with working memory capacities: the higher the working memory span, the higher the number of models underlying the conditional interpretation. These two hypotheses were verified, supporting the mental models theory. The results are compared with the rival theory of mental logic.
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