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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Transitive inference in non-humans? Not so fast!


A capacity for transitive inference (i.e. if aRb and bRc then aRc) was thought to be uniquely human. However, evidence of transitive inference in other species suggests that this capacity is ubiquitous throughout the animal kingdom. This apparent ubiquity raises two basic questions for cognitive science. (1) Why is transitive inference so prevalent? (2) What is special about transitive inference in (adult) humans? Formal (category theory) methods are used to address these questions. To the first question, different (implicit and explicit) forms of transitive inference follow from a common (universal) operation over the premises, aRb and bRc, i.e. a category theory version of transitive closure, hence the ubiquity of this capacity. To the second question, this construction involves rapid (one-shot) premise integration in older humans, but not other cohorts. This formal comparison points to rapid encoding and integration of relational data as underlying the evolution and development of higher cognitive capacities.

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