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Friday, June 11, 2021

Causal judgments about atypical actions are influenced by agents' epistemic states

Kirfel, L. & Lagnado, D.
Cognition, Volume 212, July 2021.


A prominent finding in causal cognition research is people’s tendency to attribute increased causality to atypical actions. If two agents jointly cause an outcome (conjunctive causation), but differ in how frequently they have performed the causal action before, people judge the atypically acting agent to have caused the outcome to a greater extent. In this paper, we argue that it is the epistemic state of an abnormally acting agent, rather than the abnormality of their action, that is driving people's causal judgments. Given the predictability of the normally acting agent's behaviour, the abnormal agent is in a better position to foresee the consequences of their action. We put this hypothesis to test in four experiments. In Experiment 1, we show that people judge the atypical agent as more causal than the normally acting agent, but also judge the atypical agent to have an epistemic advantage. In Experiment 2, we find that people do not judge a causal difference if no epistemic advantage for the abnormal agent arises. In Experiment 3, we replicate these findings in a scenario in which the abnormal agent's epistemic advantage generalises to a novel context. In Experiment 4, we extend these findings to mental states more broadly construed and develop a Bayesian network model that predicts the degree of outcome-oriented mental states based on action normality and epistemic states. We find that people infer mental states like desire and intention to a greater extent from abnormal behaviour when this behaviour is accompanied by an epistemic advantage. We discuss these results in light of current theories and research on people's preference for abnormal causes.

From the Conclusion

In this paper, we have argued that the typicality of actions changes how much an agent can foresee the consequences of their action. We have shown that it is this very epistemic asymmetry between a normally and abnormally acting agent that influences people’s causal judgments. Both employee and party organiser acted abnormally, but when acting, they also could have foreseen the event of a dust explosion to a greater extent. While further research is needed on this topic, the connection between action typicality and epistemic states brings us one step closer to understanding the enigmatic role of normality in causal cognition.