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Annu Rev Psychol. 2006;57:227-54.

Explanation and understanding.

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Department of Psychology, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut 06520-8205, USA.


The study of explanation, while related to intuitive theories, concepts, and mental models, offers important new perspectives on high-level thought. Explanations sort themselves into several distinct types corresponding to patterns of causation, content domains, and explanatory stances, all of which have cognitive consequences. Although explanations are necessarily incomplete--often dramatically so in laypeople--those gaps are difficult to discern. Despite such gaps and the failure to recognize them fully, people do have skeletal explanatory senses, often implicit, of the causal structure of the world. They further leverage those skeletal understandings by knowing how to access additional explanatory knowledge in other minds and by being particularly adept at using situational support to build explanations on the fly in real time. Across development and cultures, there are differences in preferred explanatory schemes, but rarely are any kinds of schemes completely unavailable to a group.

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