Evaluating everyday explanations

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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

63 Scopus citations


People frequently rely on explanations provided by others to understand complex phenomena. A fair amount of attention has been devoted to the study of scientific explanation, and less on understanding how people evaluate naturalistic, everyday explanations. Using a corpus of diverse explanations from Reddit’s “Explain Like I’m Five” and other online sources, we assessed how well a variety of explanatory criteria predict judgments of explanation quality. We find that while some criteria previously identified as explanatory virtues do predict explanation quality in naturalistic settings, other criteria, such as simplicity, do not. Notably, we find that people have a preference for complex explanations that invoke more causal mechanisms to explain an effect. We propose that this preference for complexity is driven by a desire to identify enough causes to make the effect seem inevitable.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1488-1500
Number of pages13
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin and Review
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 1 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Causal reasoning
  • Explanation
  • Knowledge

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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