Severe Outcomes and their Influence on Judgments of Causation

Abstract

The aim of this paper is to examine whether the nature of an outcome influences attributions of causation. We contrast two theories of how people make causal judgments. Counterfactual theories assume that c causes e if a change to c would have brought about a change to e. In contrast, generative theories propose that causation occurs if there is a causal process linking c and e. Both theories share the assumption that judgments of whether an event causes an outcome should be independent of the nature of that outcome. We describe an experiment showing that people give higher ratings of causation to a severe than a neutral outcome when there is no causal process linking the action and the outcome. Individuals seek causal explanations for a severe outcome more than a neutral one and when an analysis of the mechanisms fails to provide one, they are more likely to rely on a counterfactual analysis to deliver one.


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