Confidence and Gradation in Causal Judgment

Journal Article

When comparing the roles of the lightning strike and the dry climate in causing the forest fire, one might think that the lightning strike is more of a cause than the dry climate, or one might think that the lightning strike completely caused the fire while the dry conditions did not cause it at all. Psychologists and philosophers have long debated whether such causal judgments are graded; that is, whether people treat some causes as stronger than others. To address this debate, we first reanalyzed data from four recent studies. We found that causal judgments were actually multimodal: although most causal judgments made on a continuous scale were categorical, there was also some gradation. We then tested two competing explanations for this gradation: the confidence explanation, which states that people make graded causal judgments because they have varying degrees of belief in causal relations, and the strength explanation, which states that people make graded causal judgments because they believe that causation itself is graded. Experiment 1 tested the confidence explanation and showed that gradation in causal judgments was indeed moderated by confidence: people tended to make graded causal judgments when they were unconfident, but they tended to make more categorical causal judgments when they were confident. Experiment 2 tested the causal strength explanation and showed that although confidence still explained variation in causal judgments, it did not explain away the effects of normality, causal structure, or the number of candidate causes. Overall, we found that causal judgments were multimodal and that people make graded judgments both when they think a cause is weak and when they are uncertain about its causal role.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • O'Neill, K; Henne, P; Bello, P; Pearson, J; De Brigard, F

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.31219/osf.io/m5w9c