Mental models and omissive causation

Contributors:
  1. Christina Wasylyshyn

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Description: Some causal relations refer to causation by commission (e.g., “A gunshot causes death”) and others by omission (e.g., “Not breathing causes death”). We describe a theory of the representation of omissive causation based on the assumption that people mentally simulate sets of possibilities – mental models – which represent causal relations such as causes, preventions, and enabling conditions (Goldvarg & Johnson-Laird 2001). The theory holds that omissive causes, enabling conditions, and preventions each refer to distinct sets of possibilities. For any causal relation, reasoners typically simulate one initial possibility, but they are able to consider alternative possibilities through deliberation. These alternative possibilities allow them to deliberate over finer-grained distinctions when reasoning about causes and effects. Hence, reasoners should be able to distinguish between omissive causes and omissive enabling conditions. Four experiments corroborate the predictions of the theory. We describe them and contrast the results with the predictions of alternative accounts of causal representation and inference.

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