Thinking about causation – what did cognitive psychological research find?

York Hagmayer, University of Göttingen

Empiral research in cognitive psychology investigated causal reasoning in many studies in the twenty years. Many studies focused on how people make causal inferences. These inferences include diagnostic inferences about the causes of an event, prognostic inferences about the effects to be expected from an event, inferences about “the cause” which actually generated an event, and inferences about the causal relations that underly a set of observations. Less studies focused on people’s concept of cause and causation.These studies indicate that people simultaneously hold several concepts of causation, ranging from necessary or sufficient condition over probabilistic difference-maker to physical mechanism. Interestingly, hardly any of these studies paid attention to linguistic aspects. In the talk I will present an overview of the types of causal reasoning studied by cognitive psychologist, show how causal thinking is investigated empirically, and summarize some basic findings on lay-people’s concepts of cause and causation. I will also present a recent study from our group in which we analysed the causal questions people post on the internet and the struggle we had to find out what people really want to know. I will end with questions that linguistics may help psychologists to answer.