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Linguistic, Pragmatic and Evolutionary Factors in Wason Selection Task

Authors: Olimpia Matarazzo, Fabrizio Ferrara


In two studies we tested the hypothesis that the appropriate linguistic formulation of a deontic rule – i.e. the formulation which clarifies the monadic nature of deontic operators - should produce more correct responses than the conditional formulation in Wason selection task. We tested this assumption by presenting a prescription rule and a prohibition rule in conditional vs. proper deontic formulation. We contrasted this hypothesis with two other hypotheses derived from social contract theory and relevance theory. According to the first theory, a deontic rule expressed in terms of cost-benefit should elicit a cheater detection module, sensible to mental states attributions and thus able to discriminate intentional rule violations from accidental rule violations. We tested this prevision by distinguishing the two types of violations. According to relevance theory, performance in selection task should improve by increasing cognitive effect and decreasing cognitive effort. We tested this prevision by focusing experimental instructions on the rule vs. the action covered by the rule. In study 1, in which 480 undergraduates participated, we tested these predictions through a 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 (type of the rule x rule formulation x type of violation x experimental instructions) between-subjects design. In study 2 – carried out by means of a 2 x 2 (rule formulation x type of violation) between-subjects design - we retested the hypothesis of rule formulation vs. the cheaterdetection hypothesis through a new version of selection task in which intentional vs. accidental rule violations were better discriminated. 240 undergraduates participated in this study. Results corroborate our hypothesis and challenge the contrasting assumptions. However, they show that the conditional formulation of deontic rules produces a lower performance than what is reported in literature.

Keywords: Deontic reasoning; Evolutionary, linguistic, logical, pragmatic factors; Wason selection task

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