Transitive Inference: Examples and Definition

transitive inference examples and definition, explained below

Transitive interference, also known as transitivity, refers to the process of inferring the relationship between two items based on their relationships with a third item.

For example, imagine you meet three people: Alice, Bob, and Carrie. Alice tells you she is friends with Bob, and Bob tells you he is friends with Carrie.

Through transitive inference, you can deduce that Alice is indirectly friends with Carrie because they share a mutual friend (Bob). This inference creates new knowledge without providing evidence that Alice and Carrie are direct acquaintances.

Transitive interference does not only work for relationships between people; it can work for any context where objects or concepts may have relational links.

For instance, if you know that A > B in quality and B > C in quality, then through transitive inference, we can conclude that A > C in quality.

This cognitive process forms the basis of logical reasoning. It helps individuals make quicker judgments about complex systems than would be possible if they needed to rely upon direct observations or experiences alone.

Definition of Transitive Interference

Transitive inference is a type of inference that enables individuals to make logical deductions about novel relationships between items based on their existing relationships with other items through a series of steps.

It’s an integral part of the hierarchical cognitive system and involves making connections between previously unknown stimuli via intermediate and related ones.

According to Vasconcelos (2008),

“transitive inference (TI) is the ability to infer unknown relationships between objects by using multiple sources of information” (Hotta et al., 2015, p. 1).

Transitive interference is assumed to be driven by the fundamental human ability to build numeric and contextual associations, thus placing stimuli in categories with each other based on degrees of difference in quality/functionality/valuation.

Several studies have proposed underlying neural structures for transitive interference.

One such example includes the recognition of memory tasks that depend upon the hippocampus, which helps store relevant information and retrieve past experiences from memory (Zalesak & Heckers, 2009).

Additionally, according to Wendelken and Bunge (2010), activity within the prefrontal cortex plays a role in evaluating whether it is safe to make this leap of logic.

For instance, suppose you are provided with arbitrary symbols A, B, C, and D as well as “training” whereby A < B and B < C; during testing, you can choose between untrained pairs to determine if they follow these rules (e.g., A < D?).

Overall, transitive interference enables people to derive new knowledge from prior information and integrate it into their mental models (Markant, 2020).

At What Age and Developmental Stage do Children Develop Transitive Inference?

According to Piaget’s (1959) cognitive development theory, transitive inference develops during the concrete operational stage (ages 7 to 11 or 12 years old).

Being capable of transitive inference is connected to reaching other concrete operational milestones, such as performing reversibility and understanding conservation.

In this stage, the child is no longer limited to making judgements solely based on the perceptual properties of stimuli, but can instead use logic and perform purely mental operations to make inferences.

Children also begin to overcome the limitations of egocentrism. They can see physical objects and certain issues from the point of view of others.

This is part of a foundation for the development of social skills and emotional intelligence.

10 Examples of Transitive Interference

  • Online Shopping: A practical example could be that a buyer is deciding between two different shoes sold online: Shoe A is more expensive than Shoe B but has better quality, according to one online review. Through transitive inference, the customer can assume that all products being sold at the same price point as Shoe A would also have superior quality.
  • Restaurant Menus & Ordering Food: When ordering food in a restaurant, a diner may see two sets of meal combos – Combo #1 includes Steak and Fries, whilst Combo #2 includes Pasta and Garlic Bread. If an individual likes steak more than pasta and French fries more than garlic bread, then it makes transitioning easy for them to choose “Combo 1” is preferable over “Combo 2”.
  • Sports Championships & Ranked Teams: In sports leagues where wins determine who plays who next, we can determine the winner of the highest-ranking position by critically analyzing how every team did when going against everyone else.
  • Relationships/Dating: As humans, when meeting someone new, assumes context about that person from proxies like common interests or acquaintances. Then, using transitive reasoning, we can infer other differences/similarities, which become part of the determining factors for continuing any sort of relationship.
  • Travel Planning: Similar to restaurants menus previously discussed above, if you’re planning travel arrangements via train scheduling comparison on a few websites at once – you might realize after some analysis that trains run on website A are always faster than ones found on site B while taking into account relative distances traveled or time is taken.
  • Business Deal-Making: In business negotiations such as mergers and acquisitions (M&A) or partnership deals, transitive inference comes into play when considering the potential advantages and disadvantages of specific companies based on market cap or size relative to other similar businesses.
  • Movie Preferences: If a person enjoys watching action movies with car chase sequences as well as comedic action films with martial arts fighting sequences, then through transitive inference, they would enjoy funny stunt videos involving car chases, or mocap fights simulation videos.
  • Fitness Goals and Workout Routines: If a person attends a gym where one routine focuses heavily on weights, running fast, etc., and another emphasizes cardio-specific exercises such as jump rope or rowing machines – they could employ transitive reasoning to conclude that alternating between the two is likely to be best for achieving long-term goals with high performance/similar levels of exertion.
  • Product Reviews & Ratings: When reading reviews online and looking to make a purchase, you might notice that widgets with higher scoring ratings lead you directly toward purchasing that product compared to lesser-rated alternatives. Likewise, positive ratings gained from testing labs give inputs for environmental standards and comparative advantages relative to other consumer goods/products.
  • Health Decisions: Transitive interference can impact health decisions as well. Someone may choose to eat unhealthy food because it tastes good in the moment, even if they know it is not good for their overall health.

Factors Influencing Transitive Interference

Transitive interference can be influenced by a variety of factors – from personal values to emotions and even social pressure.

Here are a few examples:

  • Personal Values: Personal values play an important role in influencing transitive interference. People may prioritize certain factors over others when making decisions because of their beliefs, opinions, morals, or cultural background.
  • Previous Experience: Previous experiences can influence transitive interference by affecting perceptions and shaping expectations for future events. For instance, someone who has had a bad experience with a specific product may avoid buying it again in favor of a known brand.
  • Emotions: Emotions often impact decision-making processes by biasing judgments towards options that evoke positive emotions while neglecting or overlooking negative ones.
  • Time Pressure: The amount of time available to make decisions or react to stimuli can influence how people process and weigh different options.
  • Social Pressure: Peer pressure can also influence transitive inference as people sometimes choose an option based on what they perceive social norms require rather than underlying personal preferences or value systems.
  • Availability: The availability of information regarding the alternatives considered influences Transitive Interference as Individuals rely on what is readily available to determine the optimal choice.

Applications of Transitive Interference

Transitive interference is an essential cognitive process that influences decision-making in various aspects of life. Understanding the importance of transitive interference can be crucial in making informed decisions.

1. Career Choices

One crucial area where transitive interference has significance is career choices. When presented with diverse job opportunities, individuals must evaluate the parameters and pick a path that aligns with their interests and needs.

Therefore, understanding transitive interference enables people to consider all available options and prioritize them based on relevant criteria such as salary, prestige, work-life balance, or job satisfaction (Gazes et al., 2014).

2. Financial Decision-Making

Transitive interference also plays a vital role in financial and investment decisions (Anand et al., 2009).

Investors need to carefully review various investment opportunities before deciding which ones present higher chances of profitable returns while balancing risk factors such as short-term volatility or long-term trends.

3. Consumer Behavior

In marketing strategies, businesses employ transitive inference techniques to influence consumer behavior by promoting certain features such as price points, incentives, or brand positioning.

Understanding these practices can help consumers avoid falling prey to manipulation tactics while making informed purchasing decisions.

Apart from business-related contexts, transitive interference helps in day-to-day activities such as grocery shopping or planning travel itineraries.

By weighing up different options and evaluating personal priorities or objectives enables individuals to make more organized and effective choices (Moses et al., 2006).

So, recognizing transitive interference helps us make more informed and thoughtful decisions about our choices.

Critique of Transitive Interference

While transitive interference provides essential insights into decision-making strategies, it also has some limitations that can compromise its effectiveness, such as limited scope, emotional interference, biased perspective, and more.

Let’s have a look at the most common:

  • Limited Scope: Transitive interference applies primarily to simple decisions in which alternatives can be easily categorized and evaluated based on simple criteria such as price or quality. It may not be as effective when making complex or long-term investment choices.
  • Biased Perspectives: Transitive interference can be subject to biases arising from personal experiences or beliefs influencing opinions about different options.
  • Emotional Interference: Emotions are an important influence on decision-making processes and affect how people weigh different options. It may create a bias in individuals toward their views concerning certain options over others, leading them to irrational conclusions.
  • Time Constraints: People often have limited time available to make decisions, compromising the thorough process surrounding transitive interference regarding information evaluation and stifling the complete analysis of the various attributes representing each option.
  • Inability to Factor Change: Changes in circumstances can affect transitive inference’s accuracy when new alternatives appear since these circumstances were absent during the initial evaluation of available alternatives.


Transitive interference is an important cognitive process enabling individuals to make decisions by comparing and evaluating alternatives based on their relative significance.

It allows people to prioritize values and preferences, weigh trade-offs between priorities, determine which option is most essential for them, and ultimately choose the best one.

Transitive interference assists in everyday life decisions like grocery shopping, vacation planning, and professional-related decisions such as career choices or investment strategies.

Though its effectiveness varies depending on individual factors or situations, it remains a fundamental component of human psychology’s decision-making processes.

However, limitations like subjective biases, emotional factors, and contextual changes affect the completeness of its approach, limiting its scope.


Anand, P., Pattanaik, P. K., & Puppe, C. (2009). The handbook of rational and social choice: An overview of new foundations and applications. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gazes, R. P., Lazareva, O. F., Bergene, C. N., & Hampton, R. R. (2014). Effects of spatial training on transitive inference performance in humans and rhesus monkeys. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition, 40(4), 477–489.

Hotta, T., Jordan, L. A., Takeyama, T., & Kohda, M. (2015). Order effects in transitive inference: Does the presentation order of social information affect transitive inference in social animals? Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 3, 1–6.

Markant, D. B. (2020). Active transitive inference: When learner control facilitates integrative encoding. Cognition, 200, 104188.

Moses, S., Villate, C., & Ryan, J. (2006). An investigation of learning strategy supporting transitive inference performance in humans compared to other species. Neuropsychologia, 44(8), 1370–1387.

Wendelken, C., & Bunge, S. A. (2010). Transitive inference: Distinct contributions of rostrolateral prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22(5), 837–847.

Zalesak, M., & Heckers, S. (2009). The role of the hippocampus in transitive inference. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 172(1), 24–30.

Viktoriya Sus

Viktoriya Sus (MA)

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Viktoriya Sus is an academic writer specializing mainly in economics and business from Ukraine. She holds a Master’s degree in International Business from Lviv National University and has more than 6 years of experience writing for different clients. Viktoriya is passionate about researching the latest trends in economics and business. However, she also loves to explore different topics such as psychology, philosophy, and more.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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