Cognitive Science Colloquium
Explanation as a heuristic cognitive process
Explaining even relatively mundane facts (e.g., that people eat eggs for breakfast) is, in principle, a complex task. Among other things, generating an explanation involves accessing relevant information from memory, searching the retrieved information for plausible reasons, and weighing these reasons against one another. These cognitive operations are computationally intensive, yet people often need to generate explanations quickly, in the moment, to make sense of their experiences. Thus, in my talk I will propose that people come up with everyday explanations much as they come up with solutions to other complex problems—heuristically. Extensive research on judgment and decision making suggests that people routinely answer difficult questions by using whatever information they can retrieve easily to construct a simple, approximate answer. The search for explanations (e.g., why do we eat eggs for breakfast?) might trigger a similar process, oversampling highly accessible facts about the entities in the observation to be explained. I will further hypothesize that, due to the organization of memory, these accessible facts are more often about the inherent features of the relevant entities (e.g., eggs have a lot of protein) than about their history, their relations to other entities, etc. This bias toward inherence is then reflected in the final product of this heuristic process, which is therefore termed the inherence heuristic. I will describe a series of experiments that provide evidence for this explanatory heuristic, trace its developmental course, and highlight its links to several other psychological phenomena (such as essentialism and the fundamental attribution error).