Norms and the meaning of omissive enabling conditions

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Description: People often reason about omissions. One line of research shows that people can distinguish between the semantics of omissive causes and omissive enabling conditions: for instance, not flunking out of college enabled you (but didn’t cause you) to graduate. Another line of work shows that people rely on the normative status of omissive events in inferring their causal role: if the outcome came about because the omission violated some norm, reasoners are more likely to select that omission as a cause. We designed a novel paradigm that tests how norms interact with the semantics of omissive enabling conditions. The paradigm concerns the circuitry of a mechanical device that plays music. Two experiments used the paradigm to stipulate norms and present a distinct set of possibilities to participants. Participants chose which causal verb best described the operations of the machine. The studies revealed that participants’ responses are best predicted by their tendency to consider the semantics of omissive relations. In contrast, norms had little to no effect in participants’ responses. We conclude by marshaling the evidence and considering what role norms may play in people’s understanding of omissions.

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