Much ado about nothing: The mental representation of omissive causes

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Description: When the absence of an event causes some outcome, it is a form of omissive causation. For instance, not eating lunch may cause you to be hungry. Recent psychological proposals concur that the mind represents omissions through mental simulation, but they disagree on the form of that simulation. One theory states that omissive causes are represented as force vectors; another states that omissions are representations of contrasting counterfactual simulations; a third theory argues that people think about omissions by representing sets of iconic possibilities – mental models – in a piecemeal fashion. In this paper, we tease apart the empirical predictions of the three theories and describe experiments that run counter to two of them. Experiments 1 and 2 show that reasoners are capable of inferring temporal relations from omissive causes – a pattern that contravenes the force theory. Experiment 3 asked participants to list the possibilities consistent with an omissive cause – it found that they tended to list particular privileged possibilities first, most often, and faster than alternative possibilities. The pattern is consistent with the model theory, but inconsistent with the contrast hypothesis. We marshal the evidence and explain why it helps to solve a long-standing debate about how the mind represents omissions.

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  • Contrasts in reasoning about omissions

    Omissions figure prominently in causal reasoning from diagnosis to ascriptions of negligence. One philosophical proposal posits that omissions are acc...

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  • Neither the time nor the place: Omissive causes yield temporal inferences

    Is it reasonable for humans to draw temporal conclusions from omissive causal assertions? For example, if you learn that not charging your phone cause...

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