A majority of the projects in the lab involve explanations. Studying explanations often, well…requires explanation. Explanation is a relatively new area of study in cognitive psychology. In many ways, cognitive psychology is a latecomer to explanation. Philosophers of science have been thinking about explanation for decades, and social psychology has a large literature on how we explain our own and other people’s behavior.
One argument for studying explanation comes from its ubiquity. We spend a great deal of time seeking, generating, and evaluating explanations. If you eavesdrop on others or attend to your own conversations, it won’t be long before you hear an explanation, or at least a request for one. Why is your roommate angry? Why did the cake turn out too dry? Why is there traffic at 3pm? And yes, even “why are we here?” The tendency to seek explanations is so pervasive that some psychologists have posited an “explanation urge” (Kosslyn, 1995), or a “drive to explain” (Gopnik, 2000). The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould allegedly characterized humans as “the primates who tell stories,” and many of these stories take the form of explanations.

Thinking about explanation raises a number of important questions. Why are we so driven to explain? What counts as an explanation, and what makes some explanations better than others? Are there different kinds of explanations? If so, what are they? These are the kinds of questions addressed in the Concepts & Cognition lab. For example, in one line of research we consider the role of simplicity in evaluating explanations. Why do people prefer simpler explanations, and what are the consequences of this preference? One finding is that people tend to treat simpler explanations as if they’re more likely to be true, even when there’s evidence to the contrary. In a second line of research, we’ve explored the distinction between mechanistic explanations (those that cite causes and causal mechanisms) and teleological explanation (those that cite functions and goals). On-going work suggests that these two kinds of explanations correspond to different ways of reasoning about objects and events: depending on which kind of explanation you spontaneously entertain, you might generate different responses to the very same questions.

While explanation is fascinating in its own right, another motivation for studying explanation comes from the potential to learn about other areas of cognition. Explanation is at the core of basic cognitive processes like learning, inference, and categorization. To illustrate, consider the relationship between explanation and learning. Anyone who’s ever tutored, taught a course, or simply explained something to a friend has had the experience that explaining can lead to greater understanding. This is pretty mysterious. When you request an explanation from someone else, you gain new information. But when you explain to someone else, you’re not gaining new information in the same way–you’re just reorganizing what you already know. Why should this lead to greater understanding? More generally, what’s the role of explanation in learning, and what can we learn about learning by explaining explanation? Based on everyday observations and evidence from cognitive psychology, there’s reason to think explanation is intimately related to inference and categorization as well as learning.

If you would like to learn more about explanation, you can read a short review paper in Trends in Cognitive Sciences here. Many of the other publications from the lab are also about explanation. And finally, it’s worth saying that not every project in the Concepts & Cognition lab is about explanation! Some projects are related to explanation, but focus on causation or categorization. Other projects aren’t particularly related to explanation at all. You can read about the members of the lab and their interests here.