Memory accessibility shapes explanation: Testing key claims of the inherence heuristic account

Larisa J. Hussak, Andrei Cimpian

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


People understand the world by constructing explanations for what they observe. It is thus important to identify the cognitive processes underlying these judgments. According to a recent proposal, everyday explanations are often constructed heuristically: Because people need to generate explanations on a moment-by-moment basis, they cannot perform an exhaustive search through the space of possible reasons, but may instead use the information that is most easily accessible in memory (Cimpian & Salomon 2014a, b). In the present research, we tested two key claims of this proposal that have so far not been investigated. First, we tested whether—as previously hypothesized—the information about an entity that is most accessible in memory tends to consist of inherent or intrinsic facts about that entity, rather than extrinsic (contextual, historical, etc.) facts about it (Studies 1 and 2). Second, we tested the implications of this difference in the memory accessibility of inherent versus extrinsic facts for the process of generating explanations: Does the fact that inherent facts are more accessible than relevant extrinsic facts give rise to an inherence bias in the content of the explanations generated (Studies 3 and 4)? The findings supported the proposal that everyday explanations are generated in part via a heuristic process that relies on easily accessible—and often inherent—information from memory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)68-88
Number of pages21
JournalMemory and Cognition
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018


  • Accessibility
  • Explanation
  • Heuristics
  • Inherence heuristic
  • Memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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