The role of covariation versus mechanism information in causal attribution

Woo kyoung Ahn*, Charles W. Kalish, Douglas L. Medin, Susan A. Gelman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

271 Scopus citations


Traditional approaches to causal attribution propose that information about covariation of factors is used to identify causes of events. In contrast, we present a series of studies showing that people seek out and prefer information about causal mechanisms rather than information about covariation. Experiments 1, 2 and 3 asked subjects to indicate the kind of information they would need for causal attribution. The subjects tended to seek out information that would provide evidence for or against hypotheses about underlying mechanisms. When asked to provide causes, the subjects' descriptions were also based on causal mechanisms. In Experiment 4, subjects received pieces of conflicting evidence matching in covariation values but differing in whether the evidence included some statement of a mechanism. The influence of evidence was significantly stronger when it included mechanism information. We conclude that people do not treat the task of causal attribution as one of identifying a novel causal relationship between arbitrary factors by relying solely on covariation information. Rather, people attempt to seek out causal mechanisms in developing a causal explanation for a specific event.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)299-352
Number of pages54
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1995

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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