Research interests

The Cognitive Science of Causality

We are constantly surrounded by complex networks of cause and effect. The device you are using to view this page, the process by which you came to visit it, the biological processes that keep your body functioning, these are just a tiny fraction of the causal relationships we interact with and experience every moment.

How do we understand this complex causal world? How are we able to interact with it successfully? How do we identify causal relationships with such ease? These are the questions that motivate my research. Investigating how we learn, comprehend, and interact with causality can provide new insight into human behavior, and ultimately help us interact with the world more successfully.

Causal perception

There are certain events that we irresistably perceive as causal, i.e., events in which one object causes another object (or objects) to move or change state. In fact, there are several such events. Are these really all the same type of 'causal' event, or are these different types of events that we happen to describe as causal? In this line of work I am trying to determine whether there are multiple perceptual representations of 'cause', and if so what principles distinguish them, and how they are related to each other.

To start with, I have been exploring the difference between two events, "Launching" and "Triggering". These events both involve one object moving until it is adjacent to a second object, at which point the first object stops and the second immediately begins moving. The only difference between them is the relative speeds of the two objects: in a triggering event, the second object moves more than twice the speed of the first. Using psychophysical methods with adults and looking time methods with human infants, I have found evidence that these events are distinguished in perceptual processing, and that this distinction may be intrinsic to causal perception, in other words we find evidence for this distinction as early in development as we find evidence for causal perception at all.

Counterfactual reasoning

Counterfactual reasoning is the ability to think about what could have, would have, or should have happened, in addition to what actually happened. Some philosophers have actually defined causality entirely in terms of counterfactual dependence. Under this view, when we say "C causes E", we are saying that at least one of two counterfactual statements are true:

In this research program I am interested in patterns of causal judgment that indicate counterfactual reasoning. For example, the way that causal judgments are affected by violations of moral or statistical norms seems to indicate that people are engaging in counterfactual reasoning.

There are also very interesting questions in the previous literature about whether children are can engage in counterfactual reasoning, even children as old as 10 years. If this is true, it implies that children reason about causal relationships in a very different way from adults. I am exploring the development of causal counterfactual reasoning, and exploring whether children show causal judgments that suggest counterfactual reasoning the same way adults do.

Reasoning and learning about causal mechanism

Humans are not the only species that can use tools, but no other species creates such complex tools. In reading this page you are using a very complex causal system. What do you know about how it works? Previous work has found that we have a very limited understanding of the causal mechanisms we interact with every day, but we know enough to find information about these systems. In my research, I am interested in what we need to know to successfully find information about causal mechanisms. The answer may be what I call 'mechanism metadata' - information about information, that tells us, for example, what kind of mechanism we're dealing with, how complicated it is, and what other mechanisms may be similar.