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Cognition. 1989 Apr;31(3):187-276.

The logic of social exchange: has natural selection shaped how humans reason? Studies with the Wason selection task.


In order to successfully engage in social exchange--cooperation between two or more individuals for mutual benefit--humans must be able to solve a number of complex computational problems, and do so with special efficiency. Following Marr (1982), Cosmides (1985) and Cosmides and Tooby (1989) used evolutionary principles to develop a computational theory of these adaptive problems. Specific hypotheses concerning the structure of the algorithms that govern how humans reason about social exchange were derived from this computational theory. This article presents a series of experiments designed to test these hypotheses, using the Wason selection task, a test of logical reasoning. Part I reports experiments testing social exchange theory against the availability theories of reasoning; Part II reports experiments testing it against Cheng and Holyoak's (1985) permission schema theory. The experimental design included eight critical tests designed to choose between social exchange theory and these other two families of theories; the results of all eight tests support social exchange theory. The hypothesis that the human mind includes cognitive processes specialized for reasoning about social exchange predicts the content effects found in these experiments, and parsimoniously explains those that have already been reported in the literature. The implications of this line of research for a modular view of human reasoning are discussed, as well as the utility of evolutionary biology in the development of computational theories.

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