Do Social Norms Influence Causal Inferences?

Jana SamlandUniversity of Göttingen
Michael R. WaldmannUniversity of Göttingen

Abstract

While it is well known that agents only tend to be held accountable for events they have caused, recent findings suggest that the inverse relation between causation and accountability also holds. According to this view, normative evaluations also affect responses to causal test questions. A key problem of this research is that causal queries are typically ambiguous. The question whether somebody has caused a specific outcome may on the one hand refer to causal relations, but it may also be understood as a request to assess the moral accountability of the agent. To test whether normative evaluations really affect causal inference, it is necessary to disambiguate the test question. In Experiment 1, we showed that the assumed influence of social or prescriptive norms on causality disappears when causal inference is measured using unambiguous test questions. Furthermore, Experiment 2 demonstrates that no influence of moral values is seen when the pragmatic context of the task highlights the causal meaning of the test question. Both findings cast doubt on the claim that normative evaluations influence causal inference.

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