Causation from perception

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52 Scopus citations


Beginning with the research of Albert Michotte, investigators have identified simple perceptual events that observers report as causal. For example, suppose a square moves across a screen and comes to a halt when it makes contact with a second square. If the second square then begins moving in the same direction, observers sometimes report that the first square "pushed" the second or "caused it to move." Based on such reports, Michotte claimed that people perceive causality, and a number of psychologists and philosophers have followed his lead. This article examines Michotte's hypothesis by comparing it with its chief rival: Observers possess representations of pushings, pullings, and other events in long-term memory. A Michottean display triggers one of these representations, and the representation classifies the display as an instance of pushing (or pulling, etc.). According to this second explanation, recognizing an event as a pushing is similar to classifying an object as a cup or a dog. Data relevant to this debate come from infant and animal studies, cognitive and neuropsychological dissociation experiments, and studies of context effects and individual differences. However, a review of research in these paradigms finds no reason to prefer Michotte's theory over its competitor.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)77-97
Number of pages21
JournalPerspectives on Psychological Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2011


  • Causal cognition
  • Causality
  • Michotte
  • Perception of causality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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