Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Conceptual Centrality of Causal Cycles

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Conceptual Centrality of Causal Cycles

Article excerpt

How do causal cycles affect judgments of conceptual centrality? Generally, a feature is central to a concept to the extent that other features in the concept depend on it, thereby rendering it immutable from the concept (Sloman, Love, & Ahn, 1998). Previous research on conceptual centrality has focused primarily on features involved in four major types of dependency structures: simple cause-effect relations, causal chains, common-cause structures, and common-effect structures. Causal cycles are a fifth type of dependency structure commonly reported in people's real-life concepts, yet to date, they have been relatively ignored in research on conceptual centrality. The results of six experiments suggest that previously held assumptions about the conceptual representation of cycles are incorrect. We discuss the implications of these findings for our understanding of theory-based concepts.

Our background knowledge significantly influences the ways in which we perceive, categorize, reason, and make decisions in the world (Murphy, 2002). Recently, a number of researchers have argued that it is the causal element in our background knowledge that makes it particularly useful to us (Anderson & Lindsay, 1998; Keil, 2006). Causal and explanatory background knowledge can guide our causal learning (Waldmann & Holyoak, 1992; Waldmann, Holyoak, & Fratianne, 1995), concept formation (e.g., Murphy, 2002), inductive reasoning processes (e.g., Medin, Coley, Storms, & Hayes, 2003; Medin, Lynch, Coley, & Atran, 1997), and decision making (e.g., Pennington & Hastie, 1988, 1992). In categorization, causal knowledge also influences the conceptual centralities of individual features (e.g., Ahn, Kim, Lassaline, & Dennis, 2000; Sloman, Love, & Ahn, 1998) and the coherence among features (e.g., Rehder, 2003b). Of particular relevance to the present study is that an individual feature is conceptually central, or important, to a concept to the extent that other features of the concept depend on it (Sloman et al., 1998).

Most researchers on the influence of causal knowledge on the conceptual centralities of individual features have focused primarily on the influence of acyclic causal knowledge (e.g., simple cause-effect relations, causal chains, common-cause structures, common-effect structures, or combinations thereof ). However, in studies investigating people's own real-life causal theories, researchers (e.g., Hagmayer & de Kwaadsteniet, 2008; Kim & Ahn, 2002a, 2002b; Rein, Love, & Markman, 2007; Sloman et al., 1998) have found that, in addition to these kinds of causal structures, people also commonly report causal cycles. In previous research asking laypeople to report their causal theories of concepts, the majority of the participants spontaneously reported causal cycles (66.7% of participants considering natural kinds and artifacts, Kim, 2005; 65.0% of laypeople considering mental disorders, Kim & Ahn, 2002b).

Indeed, the ease with which we can understand causal cycles is readily apparent when considering some realistic examples. One may easily observe cycles in a range of situations-for example, that a child's poor performance in school tends to cause him to have chronic insomnia and also that having chronic insomnia tends to make him perform poorly in school. In this case, one's overall belief is that he has become caught in a causal cycle of poor schoolwork and insomnia. Similarly, one's concept of extreme prejudice might include the belief that hate group leaders create hate group followers (e.g., by means of persuasive rhetoric), as well as the belief that hate group followers (e.g., by means of their approval and support) place hate group leaders in their positions of power. In one's concept of a typical American family, one might believe that teenagers' acts of rebellion tend to cause parents to enforce strict rules and also that parental enforcement of strict rules tends to cause teenagers to act rebelliously. …

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