Psychology of Thinking

Psychology 447 Section 001
Fall 2000
Tuesdays and Thursdays 2:30-4:00 p.m.
2218 School of Education Building (new location TBA after 1st day of class)

Instructor Information

Name: Dr. Priti Shah
Office: 2004 East Hall (Psychology Building)
Office hours: Monday 3-4 p.m. or by appointment
Phone: 615-3745


The goal of this class is to take a relatively detailed look at state-of-the-art research on how people think, and how people learn to think. At the end of the course, you should have a general idea of at least some the most important classic, research in the field, current unresolved questions, and the methods that are used to study thinking.

Because all of you have taken cognitive psychology, perhaps the best way to describe the content of the class is to characterize the topics covered in a course on thinking, as opposed to a more general course in cognitive psychology. I believe thinking differs in two ways:

Thus, the topics in this course will include questions such as:

What are the methods that psychologists and cognitive scientists use to study peopleís thinking?
How do people reason?
What are the factors that influence peopleís ability to make decisions, including practical decisions (like decisions about your major or your marriage partner)? What limitations do we have, as decision-makers?
How does culture influence our thinking?
How do children learn problem-solving and reasoning skills?
Can we teach people to become better problem-solvers?
What is creativity? Intelligence? How do individual differences in creativity and intelligence relate to thinking and problem solving skills?

This course is an upper-level undergraduate course designed with the expectation that all students are familiar with the content of Psychology 340, Cognitive Psychology. Any students who have not taken Cognitive Psychology should discuss whether or not they should be in the class with the instructor. You might wish to have an introduction to cognitive psychology text available for your personal consultation. There are several available in the library, and I have some available that you may borrow.

Course Evaluation and Assignments

Course grades will be assigned based on the following five elements:

1) Class attendance and participation in discussion (20 points). This is a small class, designed to facilitate active learning via student participation. Thus, all students will be expected to participate in the discussion each week, and each day's discussion will be graded. Students will receive up to one point per class meeting for attending and contributing to the class discussion and the occasional computational exercises and group activities (1/2 a point for attending, and the other half for making some reasonable contribution) for a maximum of 20 points. Note that there are 24 class meetings, but you get no points for the midterm or the poster presentation (counted separately below) and you get two free misses. Each student will be asked to make some brief presentations in class sometime during the semester as well, as part of this requirement. This is absolutely serious, and NOT a mere ëpoint give-away. If you are absolutely unable to make it to class, please contact me ahead of time and we can make arrangements for you to make up the points.

2) Homework and short paper assignments (25 points). There will be occasional homework or short-paper assignments (approximately 5, spaced throughout the semester). Each assignment will be based on the assigned readings or a choice of supplementary readings, or will be designed to prepare you for an in-class activity or to discuss the results of the in-class activity. You will be asked to do one of the following things:

Each assignment will be approximately 2 typed, double-spaced pages in length and must be turned in at the beginning of class. The papers/assignments will be graded on a 5-point scale.

3) Semester-long Project (25 points total). Throughout the semester you will be involved in a small group project (~3 students per group) which will involve investigating a question of interest to your group involving higher-level cognition. We will have class time devoted to some aspects of your project. There will be several due dates throughout the semester regarding your project: a short proposal (5 points), a planned methodology (5 points), and a brief discussion of the results (5 points). On the last day of class, we will have a "poster session" in which each group creates a poster of their project and presents their results to the class (10 points, graded by group).

4) & 5) Midterm & Final (30 points eaach). There will be a midterm in which you will be tested on the ideas in the readings, homework assignments, in-class lectures, activities, and discussions. The test questions will be include multiple choice, short answer, and short essay questions. The final exam will not be cumulative, in that it will cover specific topics from the second half of the semester. However, you will be responsible for general ideas from the first half of the semester (to make it concrete, fact-based questions will focus on the second half, but you may have an essay or two that cuts across the entire semester).

Total number of points: 130

A = 117-130 points
B = 104-116 points
C = 91-103 points
D = 78-90 points
E = 77 points and fewer

The Readings

In this course we will be using the textbook, Thinking and Problem-Solving Edited by Rober t Sternberg. It has been ordered and will be (or already is) available in bookstores. There will also be some additional readings on reserve in the library, or, if requested by popular demand, a coursepack that will be made available for purchase at Dollar Bill.

Please note that the textbook is designed for upper-level undergraduates who have already taken cognitive psychology, and is also read by graduate students and even professionals (as a reference handbook). Thus, it is not the easiest of possible texts, but after examining a large number of possible texts (and considering several combinations of readings in a coursepack) I felt as though this was the best option available. You are paying some price in terms of ease of reading, but benefiting in terms of comprehensiveness, redundancy with cognitive psychology, and just plain interest. The text has excellent, state-of-the-art papers by written by leading researchers in their subfields of cognitive psychology (not to mention, itís cost-effective). I hope to get your feedback about the readings throughout the semester, and I will work with you to help us all get through any difficult spots. But remember that youíre not reading novels or the typical textbook here?with boldfaced words and section headings and end of chapter reviews helping you along the way. You will need to set aside a good chunk of time for each weekís readings.

Late Papers, Cheating and other Unpleasantries

Cheating and plagiarism will not be tolerated. You will lose 1 full point each day a paper or homework assignment is turned in late. That is a lot, given that most things are worth only 5 points. Please note the attendance policy above. Enough said.


This syllabus is not etched in stone; the readings, homework assignments, and exercises may be altered depending on the interests of course participants, and any new developments. That is another good reason to come to class.

Course Outline
Week1, September 7: Introduction

Introduction to class, getting to know one another, discussion of syllabus, grading, etc. And a film on Thinking.

Week 2, September 12 & 14: History of, and Methodology in Research in Thinking and Problem-solving

During this week, we will have two lectures on the history of research in thinking, and the methods that people use in higher-level cognition. We will also have an in-class activity in which we use three different methods to draw some conclusions about how people solve math problems (error analysis, verbal protocols, and cognitive modeling).


R.L. Dominowski and L.E. Bourne, Jr., History of Research on Thinking and Problem Solving. (Sternberg text) (Tuessday)

K.A. Ericsson and R. Hastie, Contemporary Approaches to the Study of Thinking and Problem Solving. (Sternberg text) (Thursday)

Read about homework 1 below, which is due next Tuesday.

Week 3, September 19 & 21 Building blocks of thought.: Knowledge Representation and Concepts and Categories

How is what we know represented in the mind?  What does it matter anyway, if weíre interested in thinking?  On Tuesday, weíll being to explore some basic issues that are important for the study of thinking: how we represent information in the mind.  On Thursday, we will examine in more detail the idea of mental representation.  How do we develop and represent concepts and categories?  What makes a dog, a dog; a rose, a rose; or a bachelor a bachelor? 


T.P. McNamara, Knowledge Representation. (Sternberg text) (Tuesday)

B.H. Ross and T.L. Spalding, Concepts and Categories. (Sternberg text) (Thursday) 

On Thursday, we will discuss possible group project ideas, and perhaps form tentative groupings for projects. 

Homework 1 (Due Tuesday): Write a brief discussion of the methods used in the activity last Thursday and mathematical problem solving.  The questions will be passed out in class. Look forward to Homework 2, which is based on this weeksí readings.

Week 4, September 26 & 28. Deduction

Fans of Encyclopedia Brown, Sherlock Holmes, and mystery novels rejoice. What is the process by which people draw conclusions based on what they know. A simple example of deductive reasoning: boatís float; a yacht is a boat, therefore, a yacht can float. 

What are the pitfalls and common errors that people make? In this weekís lectures, we will have consider deductive reasoning and how we do it. 


L.J. Rips, Deduction and Its Cognitive Basis. (Sternberg text)

Semester Long Project Assignment Due:

Your group should turn in a one-page proposal for your group project. You should include one paragraph on the main question you are interested and why. You should also describe briefly what you are going to do to address your question. More details available in class.

Week 5, October 3 & 5. Induction

Also known as, the other kind of reasoning. A simple example of inductive reasoning is: the wooden boat floats, the wooden block floats, the wooden cup floats, hmmÖ wood must float.  You can see how this might be an error prone processÖ maybe you form the wrong conclusions!  Weíll read about inductive reasoning, and errors that people can make.

Bisanz, G.L. Bisanz, and C.A. Korpan, Inductive Reasoning. (Sternberg text)

Gilovich, T. (1991). Part one:  Cognitive Determinants of Questionable Beliefs.  In How we know what istnít so (Chapters 1-3, pages 1-73).  New York: Free Press. 

Nothing this week! 

Week 6, October 10 & 12 Problem Solving


E. Hunt, Problem Solving. (Sternberg text)

Lesgold, A.. Problem solving.  In R. J. Sternberg and E. E. Smith (Eds). The psychology of human thought.  New  York: Cambridge University Press.

Due: Nothing this week.  But, on Thursday, we will develop pseudo-computational models of how people solve a particular problem: how to win at tic-tac-toe. We will divide up into teams, and each team will develop a model. We will then all come together and we will have a class tournament. This will be the basis of homework 3.

Week 7, October 17 & 19 Judgement


Osherson, D. N. (1995) Probability judgement.  In E. Smith & D. Osherson (Eds).  Thinking.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Piattelli-Palmarini, M. (1994).  Inevitable Illusions; How mistakes of reason rule our minds (Chapter 4-7).  New  York: John Wiley and Sons.

Homework 3: You will be asked to write a brief discussion about your production system of tic-tac-toe, how it compared to other production systems, how you might develop production systems representing different strategies for playing tic-tac-toe, etc.  More details in class.

Week 8, October 24 & 26 Decision Making

B. Fischoff.  Judgement and Decision Making. In R. J. Sternberg and E. E. Smith (Eds). The psychology of human thought.  New  York: Cambridge University Press.

Galotti, K. (1999). Making a "major" real-life decision: College students choosing an academic major.  Journal of Educational Psychology; 91, 379-387. Also in coursepack.

Piattelli-Palmarini, M. (1994).  Inevitable Illusions; How mistakes of reason rule our minds (Chapter 4).  New York: John Wiley and Sons. 

Homework 3 Due: 
You will be asked to write a brief discussion about your production system of tic-tac-toe, how it compared to other production systems, how you might develop production systems representing different strategies for playing tic-tac-toe, etc. More details in class.

More information can be found at the Society for Judgement and Decision Making:  Find otu more about research at the University of Michigan on Decision Making: tcog 

Week 9: October 31 & November 2 Language and Thought

MIDTERM The first midterm will be on Tuesday, October 31!

Does language influence the way we think? Have you ever heard the statement, "Eskimoís have 20 words for snow, which means they think differently about snow?" We will evaluate the claims that people have made about how language might influence thinking, and we will have a small debate in class on Thursday. So, be prepared by having done your readings (not that you shouldnít always be prepared!).


R.J. Gerrig and M.R. Banaji, Language and Thought . (Sternberg text)(Thursday)

Pullman, G. K. (1991).  The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax.  The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax and other irreverent essays on the study of language.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Thursday)

Semester Long Project Assignment Due (Thursday):

Your group should turn in a detailed proposal of the method you plan to use to study the question that youíre interested in addressing. Instructions will be provided in class.

Week 10: November 7 & 9

What does it mean to be intelligence? How can we characterize individual differences in intelligence? The topic for this week is intelligence and what it means. We will consider human intelligence as well as artificial intelligence (weíll see a film on this topic).

J. Sternberg, Intelligence. (Sternberg text)

Homework 4 Due Thursday:

Prior to todayís class check out the website: m/bgoerlic/eliza.htm or tml.At this site, you will be able to interact with Eliza, one of the first "intelligent" software programs. She is a therapist that you can talk to. What do you think of Eliza? Do you think computers can be made "intelligent."  Simon Laven has examples of many other "chatterbots" on his website: aven/index.htmWe will watch a short film of some current generation intelligent conversationalists. The video you will see will have current, more sophisticated examples of software programs who can have conversations with you:  < br> 

Week 11: November 14 & November 16 (no class n the 16th)

This week we will be discussing creativity, including the definition of creativity, cognitive processes involved in creative thinking, and individual differences in creativity.


I. Lubart, Creativity (Sternberg text)

Homework 5:

Check out the following website: html. 

Here, you will see the work of AARON, a robot that creates art (the program was designed b a professor at the University of California, San Diego. Your assignment (due Thursday) will be to write a short (1-2 page, typed, double-spaced) essay on why you think the paintings shown on this website do or do not represent a creative act (by AARON). Please consider the discussions/definitions of creativity in your readings, as well as your own definition of creativity.  Check out this website for more information on artificial intelligence and creativityhttp://ww


Week 12: November 21 & 23 (no class on the 23rd: Happy Thanksgiving!): Development of Problem-Solving

This week we will be discussing the development of problem-solving skills, from infancy through childhood. We will also have some discussion of problem-solving as we age. 


S. Ellis and R.S. Siegler, Development of Problem Solving.

Due: Nothing due this week.

Week 13: November 28 & 30: Culture and Thought

Do people from different cultures think differently? The topic for this week is the effect of culture on thinking and problem-solving. We will have a debate about this topic during the Thursday class. Check out the following website for an article about a world-renounced University of Michigan researcherís work on culture and cognition: ehavior-culture.html. 
Check out this link for more information about research on culture and cognition here at the University of Michigan:


R. Serpell and A.W. Boykin, Cultural Dimensions of Cognition: A Multiplex, Dynamic System of Constraints and Possibilities. (Sternberg text)

Saxe, G. B. (1988).  Candy selling and math learning.  Education Researcher, Aug-Sept, 14-21.

Optional reading : Nisbett, R. E., Peng, K., Choi, I., Norenzayan, A. (In press). Culture and systems of thought: Holistic vs. analytic cognition. Psychological Review

Note: By this date, your group should be finished collecting data for your project and beginning to analyze the data and prepare your presentation.

Week 14: December 5 & 7: Teaching Thinking and Problem Solving

Throughout the semester we have discussed situations in which people have difficulty with thinking and problem solving, and the kinds of typical errors people make. What can we do to help people become better thinkers and problem solvers? We will also discuss what it means to teach people these skills, and whether or not this means that we are changing peopleís intelligence.


R.S. Nickerson, The Teaching of Thinking and Problem Solving (Sternberg text)

Week 15: December 12: Mini-conference: presentations of class projects

During this class all groups will present posters of their group projects. Each member of the three-person groups will take 1/3 of the time staffing their station and 2/3 of their time viewing other students booths and discussing their projects with them. Attendance on this day is mandatory. Please see me if for any reason you foreseen not being able to attend. Refreshments will be served.

FINAL EXAM: December 19!