Independence and dependence in human causal reasoning

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Causal graphical models (CGMs) are a popular formalism used to model human causal reasoning and learning. The key property of CGMs is the causal Markov condition, which stipulates patterns of independence and dependence among causally related variables. Five experiments found that while adult's causal inferences exhibited aspects of veridical causal reasoning, they also exhibited a small but tenacious tendency to violate the Markov condition. They also failed to exhibit robust discounting in which the presence of one cause as an explanation of an effect makes the presence of another less likely. Instead, subjects often reasoned "associatively," that is, assumed that the presence of one variable implied the presence of other, causally related variables, even those that were (according to the Markov condition) conditionally independent. This tendency was unaffected by manipulations (e.g., response deadlines) known to influence fast and intuitive reasoning processes, suggesting that an associative response to a causal reasoning question is sometimes the product of careful and deliberate thinking. That about 60% of the erroneous associative inferences were made by about a quarter of the subjects suggests the presence of substantial individual differences in this tendency. There was also evidence that inferences were influenced by subjects' assumptions about factors that disable causal relations and their use of a conjunctive reasoning strategy. Theories that strive to provide high fidelity accounts of human causal reasoning will need to relax the independence constraints imposed by CGMs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)54-107
Number of pages54
JournalCognitive Psychology
StatePublished - Jul 2014


  • Causal Markov condition
  • Causal inference
  • Causal reasoning
  • Conditional independence
  • Screening off

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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