Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Even or odd: No easy feat for the mind

Date:
December 20, 2013
Source:
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Summary:
Even scientists are fond of thinking of the human brain as a computer, following sets of rules to communicate, make decisions and find a meal. But if the brain is like a computer, why do brains make mistakes that computers don't?

Even scientists are fond of thinking of the human brain as a computer, following sets of rules to communicate, make decisions and find a meal. But if the brain is like a computer, why do brains make mistakes that computers don't?

Research by Gary Lupyan, a cognitive scientist and psychology professor at UW-Madison, shows that our brains stumble on even the simplest rule-based calculations. Instead, humans get caught up in contextual information, even when the rules are as clear-cut as separating even numbers from odd.

Almost all adults understand that it's the last digit -- and only the last digit -- that determines whether a number is even, including participants in Lupyan's study. But that didn't keep them from mistaking a number like 798 for odd.

A significant minority of people, regardless of their formal education, believe 400 is a better even number than 798, according to Lupyan, and also systematically mistake numbers like 798 for odd. After all, it is mostly odd, right?

"Most of us would attribute an error like that to carelessness, or not paying attention," says Lupyan, whose work was published recently in the journal Cognition. "But some errors may appear more often because our brains are not as well equipped to solve purely rule-based problems."

Asked in experiments to sort numbers, shapes, and people into simple categories like evens, triangles, and grandmothers, study subjects often broke simple rules in favor of context.

For example, when asked to consider a contest open only to grandmothers and in which every eligible contestant had an equal chance of victory, people tended to think that a 68-year old woman with 6 grandchildren was more likely to win than a 39-year old woman with a newborn grandkid.

"Even though people can articulate the rules, they can't help but be influenced by perceptual details," Lupyan says. "Thinking of triangles tends to involve thinking of typical, equilateral sorts of triangles. It is difficult to focus on just the rules that make a shape a triangle, regardless of what it looks like exactly."

In many cases, eschewing rules is no big deal. In fact, it can be an advantage in assessing the unfamiliar.

"This serves us quite well," Lupyan says. "If something looks and walks like a duck, chances are it's a duck."

Unless it's a math test, where rules are absolutely necessary for success. Thankfully, humans have learned to transcend their reliance on similarity.

"After all, although some people may mistakenly think that 798 is an odd number, not only can people follow such rules -- though not always perfectly -- we are capable of building computers that can execute such rules perfectly," Lupyan says. "That itself required very precise, mathematical cognition. A big question is where this ability comes from and why some people are better at formal rules than other people."

That question may be important to educators, who spend a great deal of time teaching rules-based systems of math and science.

"Students approach learning with biases shaped both by evolution and day-to-day experience," Lupyan says. "Rather than treating errors as reflecting lack of knowledge or as inattention, trying to understand their source may lead to new ways of teaching rule-based systems while making use of the flexibility and creative problem solving at which humans excel."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Wisconsin-Madison. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Gary Lupyan. The difficulties of executing simple algorithms: Why brains make mistakes computers don’t. Cognition, 2013; 129 (3): 615 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2013.08.015

Cite This Page:

University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Even or odd: No easy feat for the mind." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 December 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/12/131220154513.htm>.
University of Wisconsin-Madison. (2013, December 20). Even or odd: No easy feat for the mind. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 26, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/12/131220154513.htm
University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Even or odd: No easy feat for the mind." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/12/131220154513.htm (accessed July 26, 2014).

Share This




More Mind & Brain News

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

University Quiz Implies Atheists Are Smarter Than Christians

University Quiz Implies Atheists Are Smarter Than Christians

Newsy (July 25, 2014) An online quiz from a required course at Ohio State is making waves for suggesting atheists are inherently smarter than Christians. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Beatings and Addiction: Pakistan Drug 'clinic' Tortures Patients

Beatings and Addiction: Pakistan Drug 'clinic' Tortures Patients

AFP (July 24, 2014) A so-called drugs rehab 'clinic' is closed down in Pakistan after police find scores of ‘patients’ chained up alleging serial abuse. Duration 03:05 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
New Painkiller Designed To Discourage Abuse: Will It Work?

New Painkiller Designed To Discourage Abuse: Will It Work?

Newsy (July 24, 2014) The FDA approved Targiniq ER on Wednesday, a painkiller designed to keep users from abusing it. Like any new medication, however, it has doubters. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Can Watching TV Make You Feel Like A Failure?

Can Watching TV Make You Feel Like A Failure?

Newsy (July 24, 2014) A study by German researchers claims watching TV while you're stressed out can make you feel guilty and like a failure. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins