Introduction to Chain of Thought (CoT) Prompting

Chain of Thought Prompting is a novel method developed by researchers at Google to enhance the reasoning capabilities of large language models. This approach breaks down multi-step problems into intermediate steps, allowing language models to tackle complex reasoning tasks that cannot be solved with standard prompting techniques. In this essay, we will discuss the benefits of Chain of Thought Prompting and review the experimental results obtained from its application.

Chain-of-Thought Prompting Elicits Reasoning in Large Language Models
We explore how generating a chain of thought -- a series of intermediatereasoning steps -- significantly improves the ability of large language modelsto perform complex reasoning. In particular, we show how such reasoningabilities emerge naturally in sufficiently large language models via a simpl…

Example of Chain of Thought Prompting

Courtesy ARXIV.orgcc

Let's consider a math word problem as an example:

"The odd numbers in this group add up to an even number: 15, 32, 5, 13, 82, 7, 1. True of False?"

Instead of directly asking the language model to solve the problem, we would use Chain of Thought Prompting to guide the model through intermediate reasoning steps. The prompt could look like this:


The odd numbers in this group add up to an even number: 4, 8, 9, 15, 12, 2, 1.
A: Adding all the odd numbers (9, 15, 1) gives 25. The answer is False.

The odd numbers in this group add up to an even number: 17,  10, 19, 4, 8, 12, 24.
A: Adding all the odd numbers (17, 19) gives 36. The answer is True.

The odd numbers in this group add up to an even number: 16,  11, 14, 4, 8, 13, 24.
A: Adding all the odd numbers (11, 13) gives 24. The answer is True.

The odd numbers in this group add up to an even number: 17,  9, 10, 12, 13, 4, 2.
A: Adding all the odd numbers (17, 9, 13) gives 39. The answer is False.

The odd numbers in this group add up to an even number: 15, 32, 5, 13, 82, 7, 1. 


Adding all the odd numbers (15, 5, 13, 7, 1) gives 41. The answer is False.

By providing these intermediate steps in the prompt, we are encouraging the model to follow a structured thought process that mimics human reasoning. In this example, the language model would process the information as follows:

This approach can be more effective in solving multi-step problems compared to standard prompting, as it encourages the language model to follow a logical thought process similar to human reasoning.

Zero-Shot CoT

Stemming from zero-shot CoT (Kojima et al. 2022) we can simply add "Let's think step by step" to the original prompt.

Large Language Models are Zero-Shot Reasoners
Pretrained large language models (LLMs) are widely used in many sub-fields ofnatural language processing (NLP) and generally known as excellent few-shotlearners with task-specific exemplars. Notably, chain of thought (CoT)prompting, a recent technique for eliciting complex multi-step reasoningth…
Boosting Theory-of-Mind Performance in Large Language Models via Prompting
Large language models (LLMs) excel in many tasks in 2023, but they still facechallenges in complex reasoning. Theory-of-mind (ToM) tasks, which requireunderstanding agents’ beliefs, goals, and mental states, are essential forcommon-sense reasoning involving humans, making it crucial to enhance LL…


I visited the bookstore and purchased 15 books. I lent 3 books to my friend and donated 4 to the local library. Later, I bought 7 more books and sold 2. How many books do I have now? Let's think step by step


You visited the bookstore and purchased 15 books.
Initial count: 15 books
You lent 3 books to your friend.
To find out how many books you have left, subtract the 3 books you lent from the initial count: 15 - 3 = 12 books
You donated 4 books to the local library.
Now, subtract the 4 books you donated from the current count: 12 - 4 = 8 books
You bought 7 more books.
To find out the updated count, add the 7 books you bought to the current count: 8 + 7 = 15 books
You sold 2 books.
Lastly, subtract the 2 books you sold from the updated count: 15 - 2 = 13 books

This works well with newer LLMs and is much more effective than few-shot and regular CoT prompting.

A more recent paper suggests that with GPT 4, using the phrase "let's work this out in a step-by-step way to make sure we have the right answer"

Chain of Thought Prompting vs Few-shot & Standard Prompting

Few-shot and prompting provide a language model with examples of input-output pairs, formatted as questions and answers, and then asks the model to predict the answer for a test-time example. This method has been popularized by the GPT-3 model and has been effective in various natural language processing (NLP) tasks.

However, Chain of Thought Prompting, instead of merely providing questions and answers, prompts the model to produce intermediate reasoning steps before delivering the final answer to a multi-step problem. The main idea is that the model-generated Chain of Thought would resemble an intuitive thought process when working through a multi-step reasoning problem.

Step-by-Step Guide to Perform Chain of Thought Prompting

Performing Chain of Thought Prompting involves guiding a language model through a series of intermediate steps to solve a problem. This step-by-step guide outlines the process of implementing Chain of Thought Prompting effectively:

  1. Define the problem: Start by clearly identifying the problem you want the language model to solve. The problem should be a multi-step reasoning task that requires the model to think through a series of intermediate steps before arriving at the final answer.
  2. Break down the problem: Decompose the problem into smaller, more manageable steps. Identify the key components or intermediate steps necessary for solving the problem. Each step should represent a logical progression in the overall reasoning process. Each step should be
  3. Develop a chain of thought: Create a structured sequence of prompts that correspond to the intermediate steps identified in the previous step. Each prompt should be phrased in a clear and concise manner to guide the language model through the thought process. Ensure that the prompts maintain a logical flow, moving from one step to the next.
  4. Prepare examples: For few-shot prompting, prepare a set of examples that demonstrate the desired chain of thought for similar problems. These examples should showcase the intermediate steps and the final solution, providing the language model with a template to follow when solving the given problem. With most modern LLMs the number of examples necessary tends to be much smaller than those shown in the origin papers. Again, experiment with each LLM you work with to find that sweet spot.
  5. Incorporate the prompts into the model: Input the chain of thought prompts and examples into the language model, either by concatenating them as part of the input text or by using any other method supported by the specific model you're working with. Ensure that the prompts are formatted consistently and accurately represent the intended intermediate steps.
  6. Test the model: Evaluate the model's performance on the problem using the Chain of Thought Prompting approach. Analyze the intermediate steps produced by the model to ensure it follows the intended thought process. Assess the accuracy and efficiency of the final solution provided by the model.
  7. Iterate and refine: Based on the evaluation, refine the chain of thought prompts and examples to improve the model's performance. This might involve rephrasing prompts, adjusting the order of steps, or providing additional examples to guide the model more effectively. Repeat the testing and refinement process until the desired performance level is achieved.
  8. Apply to new problems: Once the Chain of Thought Prompting approach has been fine-tuned, apply the method to new problems within the same domain or related domains. The structured problem-solving approach can help the model tackle a wide range of multi-step reasoning tasks, enhancing its overall performance and versatility.

Benefits of Chain of Thought Prompting

Chain of Thought Prompting offers numerous advantages in enhancing the reasoning abilities of large language models. By using this method, models are encouraged to follow a structured approach to problem-solving, mimicking human-like thought processes. Some of the key benefits of Chain of Thought Prompting include:

  1. Decomposing Multi-Step Problems: One of the primary advantages of Chain of Thought Prompting is its ability to break down complex, multi-step problems into smaller, more manageable steps. This decomposition allows the model to allocate more computational resources to each step, ultimately leading to more accurate and efficient problem-solving.
  2. Interpretability and Transparency: Chain of Thought Prompting provides valuable insight into the model's behaviour, making it easier to understand, evaluate, and debug its reasoning process. By following a step-by-step approach, users can gain a clearer understanding of the model's thought progression, which can be crucial in critical applications where transparency and explainability are essential.
  3. Versatility across Tasks: Another significant advantage of Chain of Thought Prompting is its applicability across various tasks, including math word problems, commonsense reasoning, and symbolic manipulation. This method is adaptable to any task that can be solved through language, making it a powerful tool for enhancing the problem-solving capabilities of language models across a wide range of domains.
  4. Ease of Integration: Chain of Thought Prompting can be easily incorporated into existing large language models without requiring significant modifications to their architecture. By leveraging few-shot prompting and including chain-of-thought sequences as examples, models can quickly learn to apply this structured problem-solving approach to new tasks, improving their overall performance and reasoning capabilities.
  5. Improved Learning Efficiency: By breaking down complex tasks into smaller steps, Chain of Thought Prompting allows language models to focus on each step individually. This focused approach can lead to more efficient learning and better retention of knowledge, as the model can grasp concepts more effectively.
  6. Enhanced Collaboration with Human Experts: Chain of Thought Prompting can help bridge the communication gap between language models and human users by making the model's reasoning process more transparent and relatable. This improved understanding can foster better collaboration between humans and AI, particularly in expert domains like medicine, law, or engineering, where human input remains crucial.
  7. Adaptability to Task Complexity: Chain of Thought Prompting is adaptable to the complexity of a given task. For simpler tasks, the method can be reduced to fewer steps, while more intricate problems can be addressed with a more detailed chain of thoughts. This flexibility enables language models to handle a wide variety of tasks with varying degrees of complexity.
  8. Error Detection and Correction: By providing insights into the model's reasoning process, Chain of Thought Prompting makes it easier to identify and correct potential errors. Users can pinpoint where the model might have gone astray in its thought process, enabling them to address inaccuracies and improve the model's performance.
  9. Transferability of Skills: The structured problem-solving approach used in Chain of Thought Prompting can help language models develop transferable skills. By learning to break down and solve complex problems across various domains, the model can apply similar thought processes to other tasks, potentially enhancing its performance in new and unseen scenarios.
  10. Teaching and Training Applications: Chain of Thought Prompting can be beneficial in educational settings, where language models can be used to teach and train users in various domains. The step-by-step approach makes it easier for learners to understand the underlying concepts, fostering more effective learning and knowledge retention.

Determining the Suitability of Chain of Thought Prompting

To assess whether Chain of Thought Prompting is appropriate for a specific task, consider the following factors:

  1. Complex multi-step tasks: If the target task involves multiple steps or requires sequential reasoning, Chain of Thought Prompting can be highly beneficial. It allows the model to break down the problem into smaller, manageable steps, thus making it easier to solve.
  2. Tasks that benefit from intermediate explanations: For tasks where it is helpful to understand the model's thought process or reasoning steps, Chain of Thought Prompting is an excellent choice. It encourages the model to provide intermediate explanations, making the reasoning process more interpretable and easier to debug.
  3. Tasks with a language-based solution: Chain of Thought Prompting is most effective when applied to tasks that can be solved through language, such as math word problems, commonsense reasoning, and symbolic manipulation.
  4. Situations where standard prompting is insufficient: If standard prompting techniques are not yielding satisfactory results or have reached their limits, Chain of Thought Prompting may provide further improvements by guiding the model through a more structured reasoning process.
  5. When working with large language models: Chain of Thought Prompting has been shown to be most effective when used with large language models, preferably those with more than 100 billion parameters. The method is designed to take advantage of the extensive knowledge and reasoning capabilities of such models.
  6. Model size: Determine whether a large language model, preferably larger than 100 billion parameters, is being used. Chain of Thought Prompting has the most significant impact when used with such models, as they have the capacity to effectively process complex tasks.
  7. Alternative prompting methods: If further gains cannot be achieved even with the largest language models, it might be necessary to explore alternative prompting methods like Chain of Thought Prompting. This method can help uncover novel approaches to problem-solving and lead to improved performance.

Potential Limitations and Future Directions

While Chain of Thought Prompting has shown significant improvements in language models' reasoning abilities, it is essential to consider potential limitations and areas for future research:

  1. Task suitability: One possible limitation is that the method may not be as effective for tasks that do not require multi-step reasoning or are not well-suited to decomposition into intermediate steps. In such cases, Chain of Thought Prompting might not provide substantial benefits over standard prompting techniques.
  2. Quality of prompts: The effectiveness of Chain of Thought Prompting is closely tied to the quality of the prompts used. The prompts should be carefully designed to guide the language model through the reasoning steps effectively. However, generating high-quality prompts may prove challenging, especially for complex tasks that require expert domain knowledge.
  3. Scalability: The scalability of the method may be another concern. As language models grow in size and complexity, it remains to be seen whether Chain of Thought Prompting can continue to provide significant improvements in reasoning performance.

Future research could focus on several directions to address these limitations:

  • Refining the prompting technique: Develop more efficient prompting techniques that can better guide large language models through complex reasoning tasks.
  • Automatic prompt generation: Explore methods to automatically generate high-quality prompts, which could alleviate the need for manual prompt creation and make the technique more scalable.

By addressing these limitations and exploring future directions, the potential of Chain of Thought Prompting to improve language models' reasoning abilities can be further realized.

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