What Causal Illusions Might Tell us About the Identification of Causes

Abstract

According to existing accounts of causation, people rely on a single criterion to identify the cause of an event. The phenomenon of causal illusions raises problems for such views. Causal illusions arise when a particular factor is perceived to be causal despite knowledge indicating otherwise. According to what we will call the Dual-Process Hypothesis of Causal Identification, identifying a cause involves two cognitive processes. Consistent with this hypothesis, we found that in response to a causal illusion shown in a naturalistic setting, people’s initial judgments of causation were higher than their ultimate judgments of causation (Experiment 1). Using an online measure of decisions, we found that people initially view animations of causal illusions as causal before concluding that they are non-causal (Experiment 2). Finally, we obtained similar results using a deadline procedure (Experiment 3). Implications for different classes of theories of causation are discussed.


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