Partial mental simulation explains fallacies in physical reasoning


People can reason intuitively, efficiently, and accurately about everyday physical events. Recent accounts suggest that people use mental simulation to make such intuitive physical judgments. But mental simulation models are computationally expensive; how is physical reasoning relatively accurate, while maintaining computational tractability? We suggest that people make use of partial simulation, mentally moving forward in time only parts of the world deemed relevant. We propose a novel partial simulation model, and test it on the physical conjunction fallacy, a recently observed phenomenon (Ludwin-Peery et al., 2020) that poses a challenge for full simulation models. We find an excellent fit between our model’s predictions and human performance on a set of scenarios that build on and extend those used by Ludwin-Peery et al. (2020), quantitatively and qualitatively accounting for deviations from optimal performance. Our results suggest more generally how we allocate cognitive resources to efficiently represent and simulate physical scenes.

Cognitive Neuropsychology