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Concreteness and abstraction in everyday explanation

Bechlivanidis, C; Lagnado, DA; Zemla, JC; Sloman, S; (2017) Concreteness and abstraction in everyday explanation. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review , 24 (5) pp. 1451-1464. 10.3758/s13423-017-1299-3. Green open access

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Abstract

A number of philosophers argue for the value of abstraction in explanation. According to these prescriptive theories, an explanation becomes superior when it leaves out details that make no difference to the occurrence of the event one is trying to explain (the explanandum). Abstract explanations are not frugal placeholders for improved, detailed future explanations but are more valuable than their concrete counterparts because they highlight the factors that do the causal work, the factors in the absence of which the explanandum would not occur. We present several experiments that test whether people follow this prescription (i.e., whether people prefer explanations with abstract difference makers over explanations with concrete details and explanations that omit descriptively accurate but causally irrelevant information). Contrary to the prescription, we found a preference for concreteness and detail. Participants rated explanations with concrete details higher than their abstract counterparts and in many cases they did not penalize the presence of causally irrelevant details. Nevertheless, causality still constrained participants' preferences: They downgraded concrete explanations that did not communicate the critical causal properties.

Type: Article
Title: Concreteness and abstraction in everyday explanation
Location: United States
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.3758/s13423-017-1299-3
Publisher version: http://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-017-1299-3
Language: English
Additional information: Copyright © The Author(s) 2017 Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
Keywords: Causal reasoning, Explanation
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences > Div of Psychology and Lang Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences > Div of Psychology and Lang Sciences > Experimental Psychology
URI: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1559976
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