Conditionals, Context, and the Suppression Effect

Cognitive Science 41 (3):540-589 (2017)
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Modus ponens is the argument from premises of the form If A, then B and A to the conclusion B. Nearly all participants agree that the modus ponens conclusion logically follows when the argument appears in this Basic form. However, adding a further premise can lower participants’ rate of agreement—an effect called suppression. We propose a theory of suppression that draws on contemporary ideas about conditional sentences in linguistics and philosophy. Semantically, the theory assumes that people interpret an indicative conditional as a context-sensitive strict conditional: true if and only if its consequent is true in each of a contextually determined set of situations in which its antecedent is true. Pragmatically, the theory claims that context changes in response to new assertions, including new conditional premises. Thus, the conclusion of a modus ponens argument may no longer be accepted in the changed context. Psychologically, the theory describes people as capable of reasoning about broad classes of possible situations, ordered by typicality, without having to reason about individual possible worlds. The theory accounts for the main suppression phenomena, and it generates some novel predictions that new experiments confirm.

Author Profiles

Fabrizio Cariani
University of Maryland, College Park


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