PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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What Causal illusions Might Tell us about the Perception of Causation

The random co-occurrence of two events, such as someone coughing and a lamp going off, often produces a strong impression of causation despite the absence of a plausible mechanism. We suggest that such illusions demonstrate the existence of two kinds of processes: 1) an automatic, intuitive process that detects a potential instance of causation on the basis of perceptual cues (spatial and temporal) and 2) a slow, reflective process that identifies possible causes on the basis of causal inference, in particular, the consideration of possible mechanism. Causal illusions arise when people rely on the first process more than the second. Consistent with this hypothesis, we found that in response to a causal illusion enacted in a naturalistic setting (a Jedi in an elevator), people’s initial judgments of causation were higher than their ultimate judgments of causation (Experiment 1). Using an online measure of the time-course of people’s causal judgments, we found that people initially viewed animations of causal illusions as causal before concluding that they were non-causal (Experiment 2). Finally, we obtained similar results using a deadline procedure, while also finding that lower (levels of) cognitive reflectiveness (as measured by the CRT) correlated with stronger impressions of causation (Experiment 3). Implications for different classes of theories of causation are discussed.

Author Information:

Phillip Wolff    
Emory University

Robert Thorstad    


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