Effects of Causal Knowledge

People have lots of causal knowledge, and they never cease to ask why questions. Why ask why? How does our causal knowledge influence our thinking?

In our previous studies, we looked at how causal knowledge determines what aspects of concepts become more important. For instance, curvedness is essential for boomerangs but less important for bananas.  We showed that this is because curvedness causes boomerangs’ action, whereas curvednedss in banana causes few features of bananas  (Ahn, 1998; Ahn, Kim, Lassaline, & Dennis 2000). We also showed that among mental health clinicians, the causal status of features determines the importance of symptoms of mental disorders to the extent that they even exhibited false memory for causally central symptoms (Kim & Ahn, 2002). (See “Biological construal of mental disorders” section for more discussion on how biological explanations in particular influence inferences about mental disorders.) We also found that features that cause other features tend to elicit more inferences than mere effects of features (Proctor & Ahn, 2007). That is, causal knowledge allows us to determine what is important and also to infer what is unknown.


Ahn, W. (1999). Effect of Causal Structure on Category Construction. Memory & Cognition, 27, 1008-1023. PDF

Ahn, W., Kim, N. S., Lassaline, M. E., & Dennis, M. J. (2000). Causal status as a determinant of feature centrality, Cognitive Psychology, 41, 361-416. PDF

Kim, N. S., & Ahn, W. (2002). Clinical psychologists’ theory-based representations of mental disorders predict their diagnostic reasoning and memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. PDF

Proctor, C., & Ahn, W. (2007). The effect of causal knowledge on judgments of the likelihood of unknown features. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 14(4), 635-639. PDF