Determinants of judgments of explanatory power: Credibility, Generality, and Statistical Relevance

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Colombo, Matteo; Bucher, Leandra; Sprenger, Jan
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Explanation is a central concept in human psychology. Drawing upon philosophical theories of explanation, psychologists have recently begun to examine the relationship between explanation, probability and causality. Our study advances this growing literature in the intersection of psychology and philosophy of science by systematically investigating how judgments of explanatory power are affected by (i) the prior credibility of a potential explanation, (ii) the causal framing used to describe the explanation, (iii) the generalizability of the explanation, and (iv) its statistical relevance for the evidence. Collectively, the results of our five experiments support the hypothesis that the prior credibility of a causal explanation plays a central role in explanatory reasoning: first, because of the presence of strong main effects on judgments of explanatory power, and second, because of the gate-keeping role it has for other factors. Highly credible explanations were not susceptible to causal framing effects. Instead, highly credible hypotheses were sensitive to the effects of factors which are usually considered relevant from a normative point of view: the generalizability of an explanation, and its statistical relevance for the evidence. These results advance current literature in the philosophy and psychology of explanation in three ways. First, they yield a more nuanced understanding of the determinants of judgments of explanatory power, and the interaction between these factors. Second, they illuminate the close relationship between prior beliefs and explanatory power. Third, they clarify the relationship between abductive and probabilistic reasoning.