Not so simple! Causal mechanisms increase preference for complex explanations

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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations

Abstract

Mechanisms play a central role in how we think about causality, yet not all causal explanations describe mechanisms. Across five experiments, we find that people evaluate explanations differently depending on whether or not they include mechanisms. Despite common wisdom suggesting that explanations ought to be simple in the sense of appealing to as few causes as necessary to explain an effect, the literature is divided over whether people adhere to this principle. Our findings suggest that the presence of causal mechanisms in an explanation is one factor that reduces adherence. While competing explanations are often judged based on their probability of being correct, mechanisms afford a different way of evaluating explanations: They describe the underlying nature of causal relations. Complex explanations (appealing to multiple causes) contain more causal relations and thus allow for more mechanistic information, providing a fuller account of the causal network and promoting a greater sense of understanding.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number105551
JournalCognition
Volume239
DOIs
StatePublished - Oct 2023

Keywords

  • Causal networks
  • Explanation
  • Mechanisms
  • Simplicity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience

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