Counterexample-search in diagram-based geometric reasoning

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Topological relations such as inside, outside, or intersection are ubiquitous to our spatial thinking. Here, we examined how people reason deductively with topological relations between points, lines, and circles in geometric diagrams. We hypothesized in particular that a counterexample search generally underlies this type of reasoning. We first verified that educated adults without specific math training were able to produce correct diagrammatic representations contained in the premisses of an inference. Our first experiment then revealed that subjects who correctly judged an inference as invalid almost always produced a counterexample to support their answer. Noticeably, even if the counterexample always bore a certain level of similarity to the initial diagram, we observed that an object was more likely to be varied between the two drawings if it was present in the conclusion of the inference. Experiments 2 and 3 then directly probed counterexample search. While participants were asked to evaluate a conclusion on the basis of a given diagram and some premisses, we modulated the difficulty of reaching a counterexample from the diagram. Our results indicate that both decreasing the counterexample density and increasing the counterexample distance impaired reasoning performance. Taken together, our results suggest that a search procedure for counterexamples, which proceeds object-wise, could underlie diagram-based geometric reasoning. Transposing points, lines, and circles to our spatial environment, the present study may ultimately provide insights on how humans reason about topological relations between positions, paths, and regions.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages35
JournalCognitive Science
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 15 Feb 2021


  • Geometric reasoning
  • Diagrammatic reasoning
  • Geometric cognition
  • Deductive reasoning


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