Towards an Understanding of Stepwise Inference in Transformers: A Synthetic Graph Navigation Model

Stepwise inference protocols, such as scratchpads and chain-of-thought, help language models solve complex problems by decomposing them into a sequence of simpler subproblems. Despite the significant gain in performance achieved via these protocols, the underlying mechanisms of stepwise inference have remained elusive. To address this, we propose to study autoregressive Transformer models on a synthetic task that embodies the multi-step nature of problems where stepwise inference is generally most useful. Specifically, we define a graph navigation problem wherein a model is tasked with traversing a path from a start to a goal node on the graph. Despite is simplicity, we find we can empirically reproduce and analyze several phenomena observed at scale: (i) the stepwise inference reasoning gap, the cause of which we find in the structure of the training data; (ii) a diversity-accuracy tradeoff in model generations as sampling temperature varies; (iii) a simplicity bias in the model's output; and (iv) compositional generalization and a primacy bias with in-context exemplars. Overall, our work introduces a grounded, synthetic framework for studying stepwise inference and offers mechanistic hypotheses that can lay the foundation for a deeper understanding of this phenomenon.

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