What causal conditional reasoning tells us about people's understanding of causality

Thinking and Reasoning 13 (4):426 – 460 (2007)

Causal conditional reasoning means reasoning from a conditional statement that refers to causal content. We argue that data from causal conditional reasoning tasks tell us something not only about how people interpret conditionals, but also about how they interpret causal relations. In particular, three basic principles of people's causal understanding emerge from previous studies: the modal principle, the exhaustive principle, and the equivalence principle. Restricted to the four classic conditional inferences—Modus Ponens, Modus Tollens, Denial of the Antecedent, and Affirmation of the Consequent—causal conditional reasoning data are only partially able to support these principles. We present three experiments that use concrete and abstract causal scenarios and combine inference tasks with a new type of task in which people reformulate a given causal situation. The results provide evidence for the proposed representational principles. Implications for theories of the na ve understanding of causality are discussed.
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