The model theory explains how people reason about durations

A paper by Laura Kelly, myself, and Phil Johnson-Laird is now out in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. It’s part of the journal’s special issue of Mental Models in Time, which was organized by Virginie van Wassenhove. The paper explains how mental models can represent temporal durations, as captured by the statement, “Amalia listened the podcast during her commute.” It describes how the model theory can distinguish between easy inferences that involve one model and difficult inferences that require multiple models, and reports three studies that validate the theory’s predictions. Here’s the paper, and here’s the abstract:

A set of assertions is consistent provided they can all be true at the same time. Naive individuals could prove consistency using the formal rules of a logical calculus, but it calls for them to fail to prove the negation of one assertion from the remainder in the set. An alternative procedure is for them to use an intuitive system (System 1) to construct a mental model of all the assertions. The task should be easy in this case. However, some sets of consistent assertions have no intuitive models and call for a deliberative system (System 2) to construct an alternative model. Formal rules and mental models therefore make different predictions. We report three experiments that tested their respective merits. The participants assessed the consistency of temporal descriptions based on statements using “during” and “before.” They were more accurate for consistent problems with intuitive models than for those that called for deliberative models. There was no robust difference in accuracy between consistent and inconsistent problems. The results therefore corroborated the model theory.

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