The propensity interpretation of probability and diagnostic split in explaining away


Causal judgements in explaining away situations, where multiple independent causes compete to account for a common effect, are ubiquitous in both everyday and specialised contexts. Despite their ubiquity, cognitive psychologists still struggle to understand how people reason in these contexts. Empirical studies have repeatedly found that people tend to ‘insufficiently’ explain away: that is, when one cause explains the presence of an effect, people do not sufficiently reduce the probability of other competing causes. However, the diverse accounts that researchers have proposed to explain this insufficiency suggest we are yet to find a compelling account of these results. In the current research we explored the novel possibility that insufficiency in explaining away is driven by: (i) some people interpreting probabilities as propensities, i.e. as tendencies of a physical system to produce an outcome and (ii) some people splitting the probability space among the causes in diagnostic reasoning, i.e. by following a strategy we call ‘the diagnostic split’. We tested these two hypotheses by manipulating (a) the characteristics of cover stories to reflect different degrees to which the propensity interpretation of probability was pronounced, and (b) the prior probabilities of the causes which entailed different normative amounts of explaining away. Our results were in line with the extant literature as we found insufficient explaining away. However, we also found empirical support for our two hypotheses, suggesting that they are a driving force behind the reported insufficiency.

Cognitive Psychology
Marko Tešić
Marko Tešić
Research Associate