Concreteness and abstraction in everyday explanation

Christos Bechlivanidis, David A. Lagnado, Jeffrey C. Zemla, Steven Sloman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


A number of philosophers argue for the value of abstraction in explanation. According to these prescriptive theories, an explanation becomes superior when it leaves out details that make no difference to the occurrence of the event one is trying to explain (the explanandum). Abstract explanations are not frugal placeholders for improved, detailed future explanations but are more valuable than their concrete counterparts because they highlight the factors that do the causal work, the factors in the absence of which the explanandum would not occur. We present several experiments that test whether people follow this prescription (i.e., whether people prefer explanations with abstract difference makers over explanations with concrete details and explanations that omit descriptively accurate but causally irrelevant information). Contrary to the prescription, we found a preference for concreteness and detail. Participants rated explanations with concrete details higher than their abstract counterparts and in many cases they did not penalize the presence of causally irrelevant details. Nevertheless, causality still constrained participants’ preferences: They downgraded concrete explanations that did not communicate the critical causal properties.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1451-1464
Number of pages14
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin and Review
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 1 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Causal reasoning
  • Explanation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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