Why think step by step? Reasoning emerges from the locality of experience

Ben Prystawski, Michael Y. Li, Noah D. Goodman

Humans have a powerful and mysterious capacity to reason. By working through a series of purely mental steps, we can make inferences we would not be capable of making directly -- despite the fact that we get no additional data from the world. Similarly, when large language models generate a series of intermediate steps (a chain of thought) before answering a question, they often produce better answers than they otherwise would. We investigate why and how chain-of-thought reasoning is useful in language models, testing the hypothesis that reasoning is effective when training data consists of local clusters of variables that influence each other strongly. These training conditions enable the chaining of accurate local inferences in order to estimate relationships between variables that were not seen together in training. We prove that there will exist a "reasoning gap", where reasoning through intermediate variables improves inference, for the simple case of an autoregressive density estimator trained on local samples from a chain-structured probabilistic model. We then test our hypothesis empirically in more complex models, training an autoregressive language model on samples from Bayes nets but only including a subset of variables in each sample. We test language models' ability to match conditional probabilities with and without intermediate reasoning steps, finding that intermediate steps are only helpful when the training data is locally structured with respect to dependencies between variables and that the combination of locally-structured observations and reasoning is much more data-efficient than training on all variables. Our results illustrate how the effectiveness of reasoning step by step is rooted in the local statistical structure of the training data.

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