A picture of a man reasoning reflectively. His brow is furrowed and he holding his head up with his hand.

What Is Reflective Reasoning?

Last week I was talking about intuition. I think of intuition as — among other things — unconscious and automatic reasoning. The opposite of that would be conscious and deliberative reasoning. We might call that reflective reasoning.† In this post, I want to talk about reflective reasoning. How does it work? And why does it work? And — spoiler alert — why does it sometimes not work?

1.  An Example

Do some math for me, will you? Multiply 13 x 16. And try doing it in your head. Don’t use scrap paper or a calculator or anything like that.

Take all the time you need. I’ll be here.

Got it? Check your work with Google.

Question: what were you doing when you reasoned your way to the answer?

You were — among other things — reasoning reflectively. That is, you consciosuly and deliberately thought about some stuff — like ’16’, ’13’, and ‘How might I multiply 16 by 13?’. And that is a classic case of reflective reasoning: consciously and deliberately thinking about thought(s).

2. What Do ‘Deliberate’ and ‘Conscious’ Mean?

Words like ‘deliberate’ and ‘conscious’ are thrown around a lot without being defined. So you’d be reasonable to ask me what I mean by them. As I say in a paper about implicit bias,

Reflective processing is more consciously represented and deliberately processed while non-reflective processing is less consciously represented and more automatically processed (Shea & Frith, 2016). Cognition is more conscious when participants are more aware of, more able to articulate, and/or more able to process it at the personal level (ibid.). Cognition is more deliberate when it involves more interruption of or less acceptance of the output of automatic processing (Bargh, 1992; Fridland, 2016; Moors & De Houwer, 2006). This explication of reflection will be familiar to anyone who is aware of the famous cases of reflection from philosophy and psychology: someone finds their first intuition plausible, but steps back for a moment to consider their intuition, and then either endorses the intuition or arrives at a new response (e.g., Frederick, 2005; Korsgaard, 1996).

3.  Reflective Reasoning Works

We can do great stuff with reflective reasoning. Thanks to reflective reasoning, we can retrace our mental steps, spot errors, and fix those errors. We can even construct a narrative of each step in this process.

And these tasks are pretty important — and not just for doing spontaneous multiplication tasks. These tasks help us plan for the future, learn from our past, and explain our reasoning (to ourselves and to others). So if reflective reasoning is responsible for carrying out these tasks, then it is a good thing …when it works, that is.

What about when it doesn’t work? How does that happen? And why does that happen? Why does reflective reasoning sometimes result in patently false judgments (Bortolotti 2011, section 3)? And why does it sometimes increase our bias (Kahan et al 2017; Schkade et al 2010)?

4.  But How? And Why?

So while it’s obvious that reflective reasoning can work, it’s not obvious why it does.†† And it’s certainly not obvious why it sometimes doesn’t work. A good account of reflective reasoning will make this more obvious. A good account will explain not only what reflective reasoning is, but how and why it works. And, importantly, a good account of reflective reasoning will explain how and why it sometimes doesn’t work.

In my forthcoming papers, I aim to provide a good account of reflective reasoning: an account that explains the why and the how. As these papers undergo review and revision, I’ll be blogging about my progress. So subscribe to the blog or follow me on social media if you’re interested in learning more about the project. Or if you just want to see the final product, then  follow me on Google Scholar where the finished papers will be posted.

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† This is more or less how the terms ‘intuitive’ and ‘reflective’ are used among many cognitive scientists and philosophers. For a discussion of that, see Byrd 2014, 7-13.

†† Thanks to my advisor, John Schwenkler, for drawing my attention to this.

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog