The hazards of explanation: Overgeneralization in the face of exceptions

Joseph Jay Williams, Tania Lombrozo, Bob Rehder

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Seeking explanations is central to science, education, and everyday thinking, and prompting learners to explain is often beneficial. Nonetheless, in 2 category learning experiments across artifact and social domains, we demonstrate that the very properties of explanation that support learning can impair learning by fostering overgeneralizations. We find that explaining encourages learners to seek broad patterns, hindering learning when patterns involve exceptions. By revealing how effects of explanation depend on the structure of what is being learned, these experiments simultaneously demonstrate the hazards of explaining and provide evidence for why explaining is so often beneficial. For better or for worse, explaining recruits the remarkable human capacity to seek underlying patterns that go beyond individual observations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1006-1014
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 2013


  • Anomalies
  • Explanation
  • Generalization
  • Overgeneralization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • General Psychology
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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