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Cogn Psychol. 2016 Jun;87:88-134. doi: 10.1016/j.cogpsych.2016.05.002. Epub 2016 Jun 1.

Do people reason rationally about causally related events? Markov violations, weak inferences, and failures of explaining away.

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Learning Research and Development Center, University of Pittsburgh, 3939 O'Hara Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, United States.
The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, 5807 South Woodlawn Ave, Chicago, IL 60637, United States.


Making judgments by relying on beliefs about the causal relationships between events is a fundamental capacity of everyday cognition. In the last decade, Causal Bayesian Networks have been proposed as a framework for modeling causal reasoning. Two experiments were conducted to provide comprehensive data sets with which to evaluate a variety of different types of judgments in comparison to the standard Bayesian networks calculations. Participants were introduced to a fictional system of three events and observed a set of learning trials that instantiated the multivariate distribution relating the three variables. We tested inferences on chains X1→Y→X2, common cause structures X1←Y→X2, and common effect structures X1→Y←X2, on binary and numerical variables, and with high and intermediate causal strengths. We tested transitive inferences, inferences when one variable is irrelevant because it is blocked by an intervening variable (Markov Assumption), inferences from two variables to a middle variable, and inferences about the presence of one cause when the alternative cause was known to have occurred (the normative "explaining away" pattern). Compared to the normative account, in general, when the judgments should change, they change in the normative direction. However, we also discuss a few persistent violations of the standard normative model. In addition, we evaluate the relative success of 12 theoretical explanations for these deviations.


Bayesian Networks; Causal inference; Experience; Explaining away; Markov Assumption

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