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J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2011 Nov;37(6):1432-48. doi: 10.1037/a0024829. Epub 2011 Aug 8.

Effect of grouping of evidence types on learning about interactions between observed and unobserved causes.

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Department of Psychology, Yale University, USA.


When a cause interacts with unobserved factors to produce an effect, the contingency between the observed cause and effect cannot be taken at face value to infer causality. Yet it would be computationally intractable to consider all possible unobserved, interacting factors. Nonetheless, 6 experiments found that people can learn about an unobserved cause participating in an interaction with an observed cause when the unobserved cause is stable over time. Participants observed periods in which a cause and effect were associated followed by periods of the opposite association ("grouped condition"). Rather than concluding a complete lack of causality, participants inferred that the observed cause does influence the effect (Experiment 1), and they gave higher causal strength estimates when there were longer periods during which the observed cause appeared to influence the effect (Experiment 2). Consistent with these results, when the trials were grouped, participants inferred that the observed cause interacted with an unobserved cause (Experiments 3 and 4). Indeed, participants could even make precise predictions about the pattern of interaction (Experiments 5 and 6). Implications for theories of causal reasoning are discussed.

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