Rethink Your Reasoning

By Annie Clark and Drew Kinsella

In college, incoming freshman can often get swept up in the overwhelming amounts of school work they suddenly have to balance. With the increased workload, learning effective and productive studying habits is essential for success. Although many people know the typical studying tips (spacing out studying sessions, not cramming, and using a variety of techniques to help memorize new facts), one area that does not receive a lot of attention is the actual cognitive processes that occur when new information is presented. An essential mistake that many people make while reasoning with new information, is belief bias. Though not often thought about directly when dealing with study techniques, it is important to  be aware of the types of errors you can make when trying to learn information to help avoid them.  

Deductive reasoning, relevant when learning new information, is a top-down process that involves drawing towards a logical conclusion based off the information given in two premises.  Premises are simply statements (1).  The most basic form of deductive reasoning was created by Aristotle and includes two premises that are followed by a conclusion, which is termed a syllogism (2).  For example,  the first premise could state “all humans are mortal” then the second premise is “Socrates is a human,” (3) so we can logically conclude through the process of deduction, that Socrates is mortal.

Although syllogisms can be true, this does not always mean that they are valid. In terms of deductive reasoning, validity and truth of a syllogism have different meanings (4).  If a syllogism comes to a logical conclusion based off information provided in the first two premises then it is considered valid, but that does mean it is not necessarily true.   This concept is illustrated in the following syllogism, “all birds are animals” “all animals have four legs”, “therefore birds have four legs.”  This is not true, but it is valid because the conclusion is logical based off its two premises (5). These examples show the harm that comes from interpreting facts as true purely because the syllogism is valid. This can also happen when someone interprets the conclusion as true because it seems believable, but the syllogisms leading up to it are invalid.  These misinterpretation processes are called belief bias.

Belief bias stems from deductive reasoning, in that it is a way of determining if one syllogism could logically follow the other.  It’s the tendency to believe that the syllogism is valid just because it has a believable conclusion (6). In a study done by Newstead, Pollard, Evans and Allen (6), they attempted to discover why belief bias was occurring when people would attempt to solve a syllogism. The study concluded that if we believe a conclusion to a syllogism, we are more likely to accept it without question, despite the actual logical validity of the statements. This finding is a dangerous revelation in the realm of reasoning, as it points to the possible shortcomings that can occur when improper reasoning occurs.

This belief bias can lead us to believing things that may not actually be true, and using invalid reasoning to back up a point we are trying to make. This can be extremely detrimental when thought about from the aspect of academia. For a college freshman who has yet to develop constructive study skills, it is important to know as much as you can about a phenomenon that could jeopardize effective studying. If you present two syllogisms that do not logically follow one another, yet argue that the conclusion is valid, you are using incorrect reasoning. In college, this can be seen in essays and debates, where the student is trying to prove a point. To prevent belief bias from creeping in, students should take extra care to examine the premises backing up the conclusion before deciding that the statement is valid and true. By being aware of the possibility of a syllogism being invalid, even though the conclusion seems believable, students can make sure they are avoiding this mistake, and have clear and supported argument facts.

Don’t let belief bias jeopardize your clear understanding of new material!

  Not only should incoming freshman be aware of this in order to avoid invalid arguments, but acknowledging belief bias can also help when understanding new material. Due to the vast new content that freshmen will be exposed to in their classes, there will be facts that come up that will directly counteract the world as they know it. Students need to be open to learning and understanding where these new found ideas come from. By doing so, freshmen can avoid closing themselves off, and only acknowledging the conclusions they think are believable, that is, participating in belief bias. Belief bias can be harmful when trying to learn new concepts, as it often persuades us to stick to our old forms of thinking.

It is very important to make sure incoming freshmen are educated about the various biases and techniques that are not efficient in studying and learning. The increased workload that freshman will face in their first year of college will be overwhelming and difficult if they are not correctly prepared to deal with the onslaught of new information. Knowing about belief bias, and how to avoid falling into its trap, will allow students to think more critically about problems, once they know that arguments can be invalid, even if they seem to be true. Student’s will be more prepared to question reasoning, and be conscious of their own reasoning, to make sure their arguments are valid, in order to effectively learn and reason with the new information they are studying.


(1) Rips, L. J. (2003). Psychology of proof: deductive reasoning in human thinking. Place of publication not identified: Mit Press.

(2) Muhammad, R. B. (n.d.). Retrieved May 01, 2017, from

(3)  Clark, H. H. (1969). Linguistic processes in deductive reasoning. Psychological Review, 76(4), 387-404. doi:10.1037/h0027578

(4) (n.d.). Retrieved May 02, 2017, from

(5)Wason, P. C., & Johnson-Laird, P. N. (1968). Thinking and reasoning: selected readings. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

(6) Torrens , D. (1999). Individual Differences and the Belief Bias Effect: Mental Models, Logical Necessity, and Abstract Reasoning. Thinking & Reasoning,5(1).

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