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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Expectations of Causal Determinism in Causal Learning


Causal learning is shaped by people’s prior beliefs, including their expectations. In this paper, we specifically examine expectations of determinism: do they vary with perceptual features of physical causal events, and how do they influence subsequent causal learning from data? We show that perceptual features lead adults to different expectations of determinism for different causes of launching (Exps. 1A & 1B). Those expectations lead to significant differences in responses to causal “failures”; that is, we show a difference in violation-of-expectation effect after a failed launch (Exp. 2). Actual data can reduce or eliminate the impact of these expectations, but they do not override the effect of perceptual features (Exp. 3). Overall, spatiotemporal contiguity cues and expectation of determinism have similar effects on causal learning outcomes, but neither is fully reducible to the other.

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