Embracing individual differences

This week I finished teaching/facilitating a course entitled Embracing individual differences in thinking and reasoning.  I was asked to give the gist of what this was about.

There’s a bunch of individual differences in how people solve reasoning problems. One way of thinking about this is that some people are very good at reasoning problems and others are not so good, with a continuum in between. But there’s evidence that people are interpreting the tasks in different (and reasonable) ways, and succeeding in reasoning from their interpretation. We examined these sorts of issues on the course.

A simple example is the meaning of “some”, discussed by J S Mill in his 1867, An examination of Sir William Hamilton’s philosophy: And of the principal philosophical questions discussed in his writings. “I saw some of your children today” implicates that I didn’t see all of them (if I had, then I’d have said so), even though the “all” conclusion is compatible with some.

There are many other examples: the degree to which people are affected by how information is presented; whether people can suspend their beliefs and reason from premises which are obviously false; whether people are sensitive to alternative causes of effects, or factors which can disable a relationship between a cause and effect.

The waters are muddied somewhat by complicated relationships with intelligence. So for instance people with higher intelligence (for several of the standard psychological ways to operationalize the concept as IQ) are more likely to go for the normative answer on some (but not all) tasks. But then one can wonder what exactly the IQ tests are measuring.

Things get particularly interesting when people with clinical conditions, such as autism, actually are more likely to give the normative answer for some tasks. There’s a nice example of where their ability to do so was used as an argument for why the normative answer was wrong. One researcher blogged:

Autistics were shown to perform with enhanced logical consistency, avoiding irrational and irrelevant biases that distorted decision-making in their nonautistic controls. However, autistics’ enhanced performance in this study was interpreted by the authors as a litany of autistic failures, imbalances, impairments, deficits, reduced capacities, weaknesses, and impoverishments (several invocations of some of these), none of which were actually found. […] In years to come, we can look forward to interventions designed to overcome this core autistic deficit and to ensure that autistics become as irrational as nonautistics.

There were plenty of issues to debate…