In two studies, we examine how prompting 5- and 6-year-olds to explain observed outcomes influences causal learning. In Study 1, children were presented with data consistent with two causal regularities. Explainers outperformed controls in generalizing the regularity that accounted for more observations. In Study 2, this regularity was pitted against an alternative that accounted for fewer observations but was consistent with prior knowledge. Explainers were less likely than controls to generalize the regularity that accounted for more observations. These findings suggest that explaining drives children to favor causal regularities that they expect to generalize, where current observations and prior knowledge both provide cues.
How does explaining novel observations influence the extent to which learners revise beliefs in the face of anomalies — observations inconsistent with their beliefs? On one hand, explaining could recruit prior beliefs and reduce belief revision if learners “explain away” or discount anomalies. On the other hand, explaining could promote belief revision by encouraging learners to modify beliefs to better accommodate anomalies. We explore these possibilities in a statistical judgment task in which participants learned to rank students’ performance across courses by observing sample rankings. We manipulated whether participants were prompted to explain the rankings or to share their thoughts about them during study, and also the proportion of observations that were anomalous with respect to intuitive statistical misconceptions. Explaining promoted greater belief revision when anomalies were common, but had no effect when rare. In contrast, increasing the number of anomalies had no effect on belief revision without prompts to explain.
Scientific and ‘intuitive’ or ‘folk’ theories are typically characterized as serving three critical functions: prediction, explanation, and control. While prediction and control have clear instrumental value, the value of explanation is less transparent. This paper reviews an emerging body of research from the cognitive sciences suggesting that the process of seeking, generating, and evaluating explanations in fact contributes to future prediction and control, albeit indirectly by facilitating the discovery and confirmation of instrumentally valuable theories. Theoretical and empirical considerations also suggest why explanations may nonetheless feel intrinsically valuable. The paper concludes by considering some implications of the psychology of explanation for a naturalized philosophy of explanation.
In his book Doing Without Concepts, Edouard Machery argues that cognitive scientists should reject the concept of “concept” as a natural, psychological kind. I review and critique several of Machery’s arguments, focusing on his definition of “concept” and on claims against the possibility and utility of a unified account of concepts. In particular, I suggest ways in which prototype, exemplar, and theory-theory approaches to concepts might be integrated.
Children’s and adults’ attempts to explain the world around them plays a key role in promoting learning and understanding, but little is known about how and why explaining has this effect. An experiment investigated explaining in the social context of learning to predict and explain individuals’ behavior, examining if explaining observations exerts a selective constraint to seek patterns or regularities underlying the observations, regardless of whether such patterns are harmful or helpful for learning. When there were reliable patterns- such as personality types that predict charitable behavior- explaining promoted learning. But when these patterns were misleading, explaining produced an impairment whereby participants exhibited less accurate learning and prediction of individuals’ behavior. This novel approach of contrasting explanation’s positive and negative effects suggests that explanation’s benefits are not merely due to increased motivation, attention or time, and that explaining may undermine learning in domains where regularities are absent, spurious, or unreliable.
Both philosophers and psychologists have argued for the existence of distinct kinds of explanations, including teleological explanations that cite functions or goals, and mechanistic explanations that cite causal mechanisms. Theories of causation, in contrast, have generally been unitary, with dominant theories focusing either on counterfactual dependence or on physical connections. This paper argues that both approaches to causation are psychologically real, with different modes of explanation promoting judgments more or less consistent with each approach. Two sets of experiments isolate the contributions of counterfactual dependence and physical connections in causal ascriptions involving events with people, artifacts, or biological traits, and manipulate whether the events are construed teleologically or mechanistically. The findings suggest that when events are construed teleologically, causal ascriptions are sensitive to counterfactual dependence and relatively insensitive to the presence of physical connections, but when events are construed mechanistically, causal ascriptions are sensitive to both counterfactual dependence and physical connections. The conclusion introduces an account of causation, an "exportable dependence theory," that provides a way to understand the contributions of physical connections and teleology in terms of the functions of causal ascriptions.
Knobe considers two explanations for the influence of moral considerations on “non-moral” cognitive systems: the “person as moralist” position, and the “person as [biased] scientist” position. We suggest that this dichotomy conflates questions at computational and algorithmic levels, and suggest that distinguishing the issues at these levels reveals a third, viable option, which we call the “rational scientist” position.
Machery emphasizes the centrality of explanation for theory-based approaches to concepts. I endorse Machery's emphasis on explanation and consider recent advances in psychology that point to the "heterogeneity" of explanation, with consequences for Machery's heterogeneity hypothesis about concepts.
Theory of mind, the capacity to understand and ascribe mental states, has traditionally been conceptualized as analogous to a scientific theory. However, recent work in philosophy and psychology has documented a "side-effect effect" suggesting that moral evaluations influence mental state ascriptions, and in particular whether a behavior is described as having been performed 'intentionally.' This evidence challenges the idea that theory of mind is analogous to scientific psychology in serving the function of predicting and explaining, rather than evaluating, behavior. In three experiments, we demonstrate that moral evaluations do inform ascriptions of intentional action, but that this relationship arises because behavior that conforms to norms (moral or otherwise) is less informative about underlying mental states than is behavior that violates norms. This analysis preserves the traditional understanding of theory of mind as a tool for predicting and explaining behavior, but also suggests the importance of normative considerations in social cognition.
Research in education and cognitive development suggests that explaining plays a key role in learning and generalization: When learners provide explanations-even to themselves-they learn more effectively and generalize more readily to novel situations. This paper proposes and tests a subsumptive constraints account of this effect. Motivated by philosophical theories of explanation, this account predicts that explaining guides learners to interpret what they are learning in terms of unifying patterns or regularities, which promotes the discovery of broad generalizations. Three experiments provide evidence for the subsumptive constraints account: prompting participants to explain while learning artificial categories promotes the induction of a broad generalization underlying category membership, relative to describing items (Exp. 1), thinking aloud (Exp. 2), or free study (Exp. 3). Although explaining facilitates discovery, Experiment 1 finds that description is more beneficial for learning item details. Experiment 2 additionally suggests that explaining anomalous observations may play a special role in belief revision. The findings provide insight into explanation's role in discovery and generalization.
Teleological explanations – explanations in terms of functions, purposes, or goals – are pervasive in religion and feature prominently in intuitive theories about the world, such as theory of mind and folk biology. Previous findings suggest that such explanations reflect a deep, explanatory preference. Here we explore the mechanisms underlying the prevalence and persistence of such explanations, following a method developed by Boyer and Ramble (2001) to examine which religious concepts are likely to survive processes of cultural transmission. Specifically, we test the prediction that novel teleological explanations are remembered better than mechanistic explanations, even when effects of an explanation’s quality are taken into account. Two experiments support this prediction for artifact and biological trait explanations, but find the opposite pattern for explanations of non-living natural entities.
A great deal of research has demonstrated that learning is influenced by the learner’s prior background knowledge (e.g. Murphy, 2002; Keil, 1990), but little is known about the processes by which prior knowledge is deployed. We explore the role of explanation in deploying prior knowledge by examining the joint effects of eliciting explanations and providing prior knowledge in a task where each should aid learning. Three hypotheses are considered: that explanation and prior knowledge have independent and additive effects on learning, that their joint effects on learning are subadditive, and that their effects are superadditive. A category learning experiment finds evidence for a superadditive effect: explaining drives the discovery of regularities, while prior knowledge constrains which regularities learners discover. This is consistent with an account of explanation’s effects on learning proposed in Williams & Lombrozo (in press).
Engaging in explanation, even to oneself, can enhance learning. What underlies this effect? Williams & Lombrozo (in press) propose that explanation exerts subsumptive constraints on processing, driving learners to discover underlying patterns. A category-learning experiment demonstrates that explanation can enhance or impair learning depending on whether these constraints match the structure of the material being learned. Explaining can help learning when reliable patterns are present, but actually impairs learning when patterns are misleading. This explanation impairment effect is predicted by the subsumptive constraints account, but challenges alternative hypotheses according to which explaining helps learning by increasing task engagement through motivation, attention, or processing time. The findings have both theoretical and practical implications for learning and education.
Traditional approaches to moral psychology assumed that moral judgments resulted from the application of explicit commitments, such as those embodied in consequentialist or deontological philosophies. In contrast, recent work suggests that moral judgments often result from unconscious or emotional processes, with explicit commitments generated post hoc. This paper explores the intermediate position that moral commitments mediate moral judgments, but not through their explicit and consistent application in the course of judgment. An experiment with 336 participants finds that individuals vary in the extent to which their moral commitments are consequentialist or deontological, and that this variation is systematically but imperfectly related to the moral judgments elicited by trolley car problems. Consequentialist participants find action in trolley car scenarios more permissible than do deontologists, and only consequentialists moderate their judgments when scenarios that typically elicit different intuitions are presented side by side. The findings emphasize the need for a theory of moral reasoning that can accommodate both the associations and dissociations between moral commitments and moral judgments.
Recent theoretical and empirical work suggests that explanation and categorization are intimately related. This paper explores the hypothesis that explanations can help structure conceptual representations, and thereby influence the relative importance of features in categorization decisions. In particular, features may be differentially important depending on the role they play in explaining other features or aspects of category membership. Two experiments manipulate whether a feature is explained mechanistically, by appeal to proximate causes, or functionally, by appeal to a function or goal. Explanation type has a significant impact on the relative importance of features in subsequent categorization judgments, with functional explanations reversing previously documented effects of 'causal status'. The findings suggest that a feature's explanatory importance can impact categorization, and that explanatory relationships, in addition to causal relationships, are critical to understanding conceptual representation.
Theory of mind, the capacity to understand and ascribe mental states, has traditionally been conceptualized as analogous to a scientific theory. However, recent work in philosophy and psychology has documented a “side-effect effect” suggesting that moral evaluations influence mental state ascriptions, and in particular whether a behavior is described as having been performed ‘intentionally.’ This evidence challenges the idea that theory of mind is analogous to scientific psychology in serving the function of predicting and explaining, rather than evaluating, behavior. In three experiments, we demonstrate that moral evaluations do inform ascriptions of intentional action, but that this relationship arises because behavior that conforms to norms (moral or otherwise) is less informative about underlying mental states than is behavior that violates norms. This analysis preserves the traditional understanding of theory of mind as a tool for predicting and explaining behavior, but also suggests the importance of normative considerations in social cognition. to accomplish the function of predicting and explaining behavior.